She doesn’t rocket through the sky, or have luscious hair flying behind her, nor does her spandex outfit shape her breasts. Instead, this superhero has her hair tied in a rather unglamorous bun, with the pallu of her Navvari sari firmly tucked in. And she doesn’t rely on a superpower to fight evil; she terrorizes wrong-doers with her extreme rage and a vocabulary of Marathi swear words. Comic world, make way for Angry Maushi.
She belongs to India’s latest brand of female superheroes — characters that are heroic in a very human way. Take for instance Widhwa Ma and Andhi Behen, a mother and daughter duo, who flick away their cigarettes in style as they go about solving mysteries. And then there is Priya of Priya’s Shakti, a rape survivor who rides a tiger and urges people to bring a change in the society.
While these characters have been around for a couple of years, their consistent rise in popularity reflects a growing acceptance of female characters, who don’t belong to the spandex-sporting stereotype. It also points to the increase in female readership in an industry where women protagonists are rare.
Abhijeet Kini, the author of Angry Maushi, wanted to create a character that was symbolic of Mumbai. You don’t argue with Angry Maushi, and heaven help you if you’re in her way on the train back home. She stalks the streets of Mumbai, beating up crooked politicians and other miscreants. Her biggest enemy is Mr Minister, who plans on taking over Mumbai, hell, and then the rest of the world — in that order. “Spandex-clad or mythological characters don’t strike a chord with today’s audience,” says Kini, and that “she’s angry about the same things everyone else is” what makes her relatable.
Priya of Priya’s Shakti, on the other hand, tries to anger people out of complacency. Producer and co-creator Ram Devineni was in Delhi when the horrific gang rape of 2012 took place. Propelled by the need to challenge deep-rooted patriarchal views, Devineni, in collaboration with illustrator Dan Goldman, conceived of Priya. After Priya is raped, she turns to goddess Parvati for help. “She gives Priya the strength to conquer her fears, and she goes on to motivate other people to challenge gender-based violence,” says Devineni.
In the story, Priya confronts the tiger that has been stalking her, and turns her fear, the tiger, into her power, or shakti. Like Angry Maushi, Priya doesn’t have any real superpowers. “No bulky, god-like beings can ever solve society’s problems,” says Devineni. “There is nothing spectacular about catching a bullet between your teeth,” says Devineni.
Priya’s strength is that she empowers other rape survivors and counters society’s attempts at victim shaming. Priya’s appeal lies in her universality. The series has had over 5,00,000 downloads, of which a two-third are from the US, the UK and Canada, followed by Brazil and Italy. On October 22, Ram Devineni and Dan Goldman, the comic’s illustrator, will be launching Priya’s Mirror, the latest book in the series, which focuses on acid attack survivors.
In this ladies’ club, Widhwa Ma, Andhi Behen is an aberrance, for the series makes no social commentary. “I am obsessed with films from the ’70s, where the hero would do unscrupulous things to support his widhwa ma and andhi behen. I decided to flip things around so that they did the saving,” says creator Jatin Varma.
Widhwa Ma, Andhi Behen is for people who love movies — and irreverence. What could be more shocking than a white sari-clad widow holding a gun, cruising alongside her blind daughter who loves a good swear word or two, in a bright red convertible? They’re detectives solving crimes for Bollywood and interact with characters like Dharmendra and Big Boss Salman. Their first case is to take down the ghost of AK Hangal, who is, in fact, quite alive. “It’s a fun, easy read,” Varma says.
While these ladies may be gaining popularity among comic lovers, they also are a reminder that the comic industry remains male-centric — these series have all been authored by men. And, as Varma confesses, not many men are comfortable writing female characters. Kini intentionally does not give Angry Maushi a husband or children; he admits he didn’t want to be seen as putting women into one role or another.
“I didn’t want people to say if she’s a superhero, why is she cooking? Once you introduce family and children, you’re in danger of making things stereotypical,” he says.
The authors of Angry Maushi, Widhwa Ma, Andhi Behen, and Priya’s Shakti will be at Mumbai’s Comic Con, on October 22-23, at Hall No 5, Bombay Exhibition Centre, NESCO, Goregaon