Can a comic book generate awareness on social evils? This thought led filmmaker Ram Devineni to create Priya’s Shakti, a series inspired by the horrific Delhi gangrape of December 2012. The innovative multimedia project, which deals with gender-based violence, features “the first woman Indian superhero and rape survivor”.
“Comic books can be more than just entertainment. I wanted an Indian woman superhero who can speak to a teenager. That’s how Priya’s Shakti was born,” Devineni told indianexpress.com. While discussions around violence against women focus on perpetrators of heinous crimes like rape, there is little talk of survivors and how society treats rape and acid attack survivors — a narrative that Devineni seeks to change. “The shame placed on survivors is extremely painful. It takes an entire family and community to help them survive the ordeal and heal physically and emotionally,” he remarked.
Devineni followed up with the second book, Priya’s Mirror, which was centred on acid attack survivors. And now, along with his creative team comprising writer Dipti Mehta and illustrators Syd Fini and Neda Kazemifar, he has launched the third edition in the series, Priya And The Lost Girls, which looks at the issue of sex trafficking, with the help of NGO Apne Aap Women Worldwide.
“Sex trafficking is an enormous problem in India, perhaps only second to drug trafficking and worse than weapon trafficking. Women are trafficked to Sonagachi (in North Kolkata which is known to be India’s largest red-light district) or other places. There is an ‘uncomfortable’ complicity within families when one of their daughters is forced to prostitute herself to support them. The stories of women who are survivors needed to be told in the third edition,” said India-born Devineni, who moved to the US when he was six.
Devineni grew up on a steady diet of comic books, especially Amar Chitra Katha, which introduced him to mythology. “Comics are an important part of our culture and hugely popular with teenagers and young adults. Now, they have also entered the commercial mainstream,” he said.
Inspired by ancient mythological tales, the third edition tells the story of Priya — a gangrape survivor — who returns to her village on a flying tiger, Sahas, to discover that all the young women have disappeared, including her sister, Laxmi. She learns they have been taken to an underground brothel city called Rahu, ruled by a demon who gets his power through fear and entrapment of women. “One of the biggest, extremely networked teams of brothels can be found in Sonagachi. I spent a week there in January 2017 and through Apne Aap Women Worldwide, I met a dozen women who told me their stories. Many were coerced by distant relatives with the promise of domestic work. On arriving in Kolkata, they were either trapped through physical force or took to prostitution because there were no means to return,” he recalled.
In Sonagachi, Devineni was also disheartened by the sight of a room being shared by multiple women and their children. “The bed they shared with their children were the same they shared with customers. You can only imagine the psychological impact of this on the kids,” he said.
Does the comic book format dilute an issue like sex trafficking? “I don’t believe so. What is important is that the stories (in the book) are based on real women who are survivors. If it makes people aware, we will be successful,” he commented.
Sacrifice, Devineni believes, “was a major theme” that he noticed among the women. “And this is where the idea of the volcano and Rahu came into the comic book. Often in mythology and ancient cultures, women were thrown into the volcano to appease the gods. The women willingly sacrificed their lives for the community. This led to the idea of Rahu who is portrayed as a demon who gets his energy from the volcano and the women who serve him. He represents ‘the brothels’ and their psychological control,” he mentioned.
He also draws a parallel with the #MeToo movement. “While it shook up the status quo in urban settings, Lost Girls reflects the reality of rural areas in India and elsewhere in the world, where change is usually slower.”
The free comic book series, which was honoured by UN Women as a “gender equality champion”, has been a global hit with over five lakh digital downloads and over 26 million readers worldwide. The comic book and its use of augmented reality was recently on display at the Global Health Film Festival at the Wellcome Trust in London (UK). By scanning its cover and pages, with the Artivve app, readers can browse 3D-animation, real-life stories, and other immersive experiences.
For his next book in the series, Devineni plans to explore honour killings and female infanticide, he said.