“I don’t wanna remember, all I wanna do is forget,” sung Chad Gray, a heavy-metal “eulogy” to “black December”, but forgetting is erasure. So as not to forget the girl who succumbed in the Delhi gang rape and murder in December 2012, US-based Ram Devineni created Priya – touted as India’s first female superhero – a rape survivor, to combat gender-based violence. The graphic novel Priya’s Shakti (and the website http://www.priyashakti.com) was launched in 2014. “The struggle of (wo)man against power,” to tweak Milan Kundera’s quote, “is the struggle of memory against forgetting”. Astride her flying tiger, Priya ensures that we remember and continue the fight.
After joining forces with acid-attack survivors in Priya’s Mirror (2016), and rescuing trafficked girls in Priya and the Lost Girls (2019), Priya returns to face an unequalled enemy in Priya’s Mask. The augmented reality (AR) comic book released worldwide today, across platforms (downloadable on Priyashakti.com), and a two-minute short film premiered at the ongoing Global Health Film Festival in London.
This time, she teams up with Pakistan’s Jiya aka Burka Avenger for “a battle that needs everyone to come together”, because the virus, which “threatens the very breath of humans…keeps them at a distance”, knows no human-drawn geographical barriers. Priya, unlike her overtly sexualised counterparts in the Western canon, Catwoman or Wonder Woman, has no god-like superpowers; her power comes from “knowledge and kindness”, to confront and tame the big cat of fear into Shakti/Sahas, and win over the hyper-masculine, egotistic enemies Ahankar, Rahu, or Baba Kaboom and COVID-19 – armed with a mask and compassion.
In the latest instalment, the series caters to children as Priya chucks the salwar-kameez for a toga-like attire, and finds audience in little Meena, as blue and gloomy as her city of Jodhpur, sad that her nurse-mother has no time for her, neither can she go out and play, because of the pandemic. Priya and Sahas take Meena to show how her mother is a cape-less hero fighting at the frontline. “AR works beautifully with physical comics, at exhibitions where they come to life and become animated. But again, its effect is very limited, more of an astonishment than anything else. We’ve captured a lot even in two minutes of the short, animated film,” says Devineni, adding, “We’ve been doing AR (with Blippar app) since 2014, and in places like Dharavi (Mumbai’s biggest urban slum), almost two years before Apple integrated AR onto their phone.”
Lending voices are icons — Pulp Fiction actor Rosanna Arquette, Love Sonia actor Mrunal Thakur to Priya; Vidya Balan becomes Sahas, the tiger, and Kabir Khan-Mini Mathur’s daughter Sairah Kabir is Meena’s voice. “I was blown away by the casting, which was done by (producers) Tanvi Gandhi and Indrani Ray. I’m more a producer and editor of this story (written by Delhi-based Shubhra Prakash, who’s been the original Priya’s voice since Priya Shakti),” says director Devineni, 48, over Zoom from the US. The roaring success of Priya’s Shakti made Devineni, who was born in Eluru near Vijayawada and shifted to the US when he was six, give up his IT consultant job at Citibank in New York to “commit to one endeavour” and turn into a full-time artist and documentary filmmaker. Over the years, Priya has become larger than he had initially envisioned, even UN Women named her “Gender Equality Champion”. About not writing the sequels after Priya Shakti, Devineni says, “I’d rather have a woman writer write Priya.”
Thakur is glad Priya came her way. “I always felt like I could inspire people, to create the right model for young girls, to urge them to speak up, voice their opinions, and fight for those who don’t have the courage. Priya resembles me in so many ways,” says Thakur, 28, from Dehradun, where she’s shooting for the Shahid Kapoor-starrer Jersey, and adds, “I have nieces, nephews, siblings, friend’s children, to whom I wanted to show a work of mine from which they could learn something. During the lockdown, we were watching Cartoon Network, and I realised we needed to do something for the kids, especially for them to fathom the fear and panic they are living in now, the crazy impact of not going out to play and attending virtual classes. The coronavirus doesn’t see your nationality, age or gender, it just affects you. Priya’s Mask shows that we need to take one day at a time, love ourselves and our parents, they are our true superheroes.”
Recalling an incident at Mumbai’s Churchgate where some men were teasing girls on a bus, and backed off when she intervened, Thakur says, “We have so many powerful women in our country — Goddess Durga, Hima Das, Mother Teresa, Kalpana Chawla, why are we not pursuing these stories? Why only is it about the superhero, why can’t there be a superwoman? Stories like Priya’s help start a conversation, and assert that our opinion and consent are very important, and these need to be said out aloud.”
Unlike Priya’s Shakti, there’s no goddess Parvati in Priya’s Mask. God isn’t dead in a Nietzschean way, not possible in a country like India, says Devineni, who grew up on a regular dose of Amar Chitra Katha comics, where “the gods and mythological characters would intervene all the time in human affairs and ended up causing more problems than helping out. I always thought that was humorous, but also insightful, that eventually it was up to us as humans to figure out our own problems.” And, he hopes, Priya’s Mask would “bring back the realisation” and gravitas behind “why we’d locked ourselves up”.
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