Interview: Ram Devineni

A note for readers: this interview mentions sexual violence.

Ram Devineni is a filmmaker, publisher, and the founder of Rattapallax films and magazine. His films include the documentaries The Human Tower (2012) and The Russian Woodpecker (2015), which won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. Devineni is also the creator of Priya’s Shakti, an augmented-reality comic book series featuring a superhero who fights gender-based violence in India. Priya’s Shakti was inspired by the gang rape and death in New Delhi in 2012 of a young woman returning home on a bus at night after seeing a movie with a male friend. The crime sparked protests across India as well as conversations about gender-based violence, patriarchy, and victim-blaming. In Priya’s Shakti, Priya is a young woman attacked by a group of men who finds her power (shakti) to help other survivors with the aid of the Hindu god and goddess Shiva and Parvati and a tiger companion. In the comic’s sequel, Priya’s Mirror, Priya uses a mirror to free a group of acid attack survivors held prisoner by an acid-green demon-king, Ahankar, who himself has become imprisoned by toxic masculinity. In addition to rich and colorful illustrations and mythological characters, the comics feature augmented-reality technology that brings to life the stories and voices of real women who’ve survived gender-based violence. Intrigued by this extraordinary project, I contacted Devineni to find out more about the Hindu, Indian, and mythological elements of the Priya series.

Why did you decide to create this comic series? There seem to be many different people and groups involved. Can you describe their different roles and contributions?

Although I am the creator of this project, I really consider this a team effort. Everyone played a valuable part in the creation of the comic book and project. I met [artist] Dan Goldman at a StoryCode Meetup in New York City, and [we] hit it off on the spot. I think he signed on the next day. Dan is a remarkable artist and philosopher–he has brought a new perspective and look to the Hindu gods. His design is based on deep respect and affection for Hindu mythology and the power of the image. Each page is a stand-alone painting that can be mounted in a gallery. [Producer] Lina [Srivastava] has vast experience creating social impact strategies for documentary films and art projects. She has been instrumental in developing partnerships with major NGOs. She recently set up a partnership between the project and Apne Aap Women Worldwide–one of India’s leading NGOs supporting at-risk girls and women by ensuring them access to their rights, and to deter the purchase of sex through policy and social change. Vikas K. Menon co-wrote “Priya’s Shakti” and Paromita Vohra co-wrote “Priya’s Mirror.”

This is the backstory of how the comic book started:

I was in Delhi when the horrible gang rape happened on the bus in 2012, and was involved [in] the protests that soon followed. Like many people, I was horrified by what had happened and angered by the indifference exhibited by government authorities at every level. There was an enormous outcry in particular from young adults and teenagers–both women and men. At one of the protests, my colleague and I spoke to a Delhi police officer and asked him for his opinion on what had happened on the bus. Basically the officer’s response was that “no good girl walks home at night.” Implying that she probably deserved it, or at least provoked the attack. I knew then that the problem of sexual violence in India was not a legal issue; rather it was a cultural problem. A cultural shift had to happen, especially views towards the role of women in modern society. Deep-rooted patriarchal views needed to be challenged.

For about a year, I traveled around India and Southeast Asia learning from poets, philosophers, activists, and sociologists working for NGOs focused on gender-based violence. Talking with several rape survivors, I realized how difficult it was for them to seek justice and how much their lives were constantly under threat after they reported the crime. Their family, local community, and even the police discouraged them from pursuing criminal action against their attackers. The burden of shame was placed on the victim and not the perpetrators. This created a level of impunity among men to commit more rapes.

How do the Priya comics reflect traditional Hindu and Indian beliefs and legends? How do they challenge them?

I wanted to use constructs that already exist in India and also use popular mythological stories to address this problem. I began researching Hindu mythology and discovered the many rich stories involving regular people and the gods. Often a favorite disciple would call on the gods for help during dire situations. So, I began formulating a new mythological tale where a mortal woman and rape survivor would seek help from the Goddess Parvati–only after she had nowhere else to turn. Although Lord Shiva and other gods get involved, eventually it is up to her to challenge people’s perceptions. I wanted to create a new Indian “superhero”–Priya, who is a rape survivor, and through the power of persuasion she is able to motivate people to change. Priya is the catalyst for change. Not the gods.

In my opinion, the core essence of Hinduism is about conquering your fears. In the story, Priya confronts the tiger that has been stalking her. She turns her fear, the tiger, into her power–her shakti. Also mythology is the story of us. In Hindu mythology, Parvati is the goddess that challenges Shiva, the other gods, and humans to open their eyes to sensitivity and struggles of others. For her, wisdom is meaningless if it does not enable the liberation of those who are trapped in fear. So, her role is to challenge Priya to conquer her fears, but it is up to Priya to motivate and challenge other humans.

Is Priya a more assertive character than most female Indian and Hindu characters or is she typical? Was her character inspired by film and other comic book heroines or by mythological heroines?

Priya is influenced by my interviews with rape survivors, but on a mythological level, she is an alternative representation of the Goddess Durga. Durga is the ultimate goddess of feminine power and empowerment, and she rides a tiger. We subverted that image by putting a rape survivor (Priya) on a tiger.

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Why are there gods and goddesses (Shiva and Parvati) as characters in these stories? Were they included to bring a higher moral authority to the comics? Or just to make a more colorful story?

The Hindu gods have an important meaning in the comic book. Shiva is removed from human society, and is deep in meditation. At first he is unable to empathize with the sufferings of humans, but it is through Parvati that he changes from an “insensitive angry god into Shankara, the god who empathizes and is patient” (Devdutt Pattanaik’s “The Seven Secrets of Shiva”). Shiva eventually believes that the human race can change, and allows Parvati to instill “shakti” into Priya, who then becomes the catalyst for change.

So, the Goddess Parvati is the awakening light in Priya and Shiva; the Goddess wants Shiva and the human race to empathize with Priya and other survivors of rape. She motivates Priya to conquer her fears and find her shakti and be the catalyst for change.

In Devdutt Pattanaik’s book “The Seven Secrets of Shiva,” he writes: “That is why the Goddess stands in opposition of Shiva as both the radiant Gauri, producing light, and as the dark Kali, consuming light…She hopes to change Shiva the insensitive angry god into Shankara, the god who empathizes and is patient.”

“Priya’s Mirror” focuses more on men’s responsibilities in fighting gender-based violence than “Priya’s Shakti.” Can you talk about the demon-king character, Ahankar? Is he based on anyone in Indian mythology? How did his character develop?

Ahankar is an unusual and complex villain. He is born of acid and is a victim too. He is given a boon by Lord Shiva to either purify the acid he was forced to drink or make it more potent and dangerous. Unfortunately he chooses the latter. He feels he is a benevolent and caring King by hiding women who have survived acid attacks in his castle and away from the real world. He does not realize that by doing this, he is actually entrapping them in their fears and depression. We wanted to a show a male character who is also a victim of patriarchy. Patriarchy and indifference affects everyone. There is no direct influence in creating Ahankar, but characters like him are common motifs in Hindu mythology. A classical example is the demon-king Ravana in the Hindu epic Ramayana.

“Priya’s Mirror” also includes the stories of women other than Priya who have survived acts of gender-based violence, namely acid attacks. I think this is an interesting element because so many fairy tale and folklore collections have involved asking local people in a community to contribute their own experiences or stories passed down in their families. How were these women’s stories collected for “Priya’s Mirror”?

Last December 2015 I was in Delhi presenting the comic book at the Delhi Comic Con, and I had the chance to meet Sonia [Chowdhary] and Laxmi [Agarwal] with Stop Acid Attacks in their office. What I discovered after talking with them is that they faced the same cultural stigmas and reactions from society that rape survivors had to endure. How society treated them intensified the problem and their recovery. How they were treated by their family, neighbors, and society determined what they did next. Often they were treated like the villains and the blame was put on them. Our comic book focuses on this and tries to changes people’s perceptions of these heroic women. The comic book’s main character is Priya who is a survivor of gang rape and we wanted to continue her movement and adventures and by focusing on acid-attacks allowed her story and character to evolve. The correlations were too obvious and imperative.

I spoke with Sonia and Laxmi with Stop Acid Attacks in December 2015 and later with Monica Singh with the Mahendra Singh Foundation and Natalia in Colombia with Natalia Ponce de León Foundation. They all helped to create the characters and story. Here are their short videos: Sonia, Monica, Laxmi, Natalia

priyas_mirrors_heroes

What is in the future for Priya? Any more stories in the series? Is there any chance Priya’s adventures will make the leap from augmented reality to TV or film in the future?

The next chapter is about sex trafficking, and we are working with Apne Aap Women Worldwide to develop the story. Dan and I were in Kolkata [in November] and interviewed exploited women in the red light areas. The story will be co-written with Emmy Award winner and advocate and founder of Apne Aap, Ruchira Gupta. The research is funded by the Jerome Foundation and we hope to release it in a year. We are looking into doing an animated short film, but financially it’s super expensive and we feel we get more impact continuing the comic book series.

Last, what is your favorite Hindu or Indian fairy tale or folk tale and why?

As a kid, I always loved the story of Ganesha. He is a fun and adorable deity whose story really resonates with kids. Also he is the god of good fortune, so all Hindus pray to him.


Interview conducted by René Madonna Ostberg.