Ram devineni is an Indian American documentary filmmaker, and creator of the Indian female comic book superhero Priya, who is a gang-rape survivor. The first book of the comic book series, Priya’s Shakti, was published after the horrific gang rape in a bus in New Delhi in 2012. Very soon, Priya became a global phenomenon. Priya’s story became a powerful voice in the global movement for women’s rights and a symbol of solidarity against gender-based violence and continuing with the #MeToo movement. Priya was named a “Gender Equality Champion” by the UN WOMEN
Dipti Mehta is an Indian American playwright, performer, and scientist. Dipti is the writer of the third book of this comic series Priya and the Lost Girls, which focuses on sex trafficking and the social stigma that the victims of sex trafficking face.
Dipti and Ram had a candid conversation with our founder, Swagata Sen, about the stories behind creating an Indian female superhero character, as well as their views on patriarchy, feminism, and breaking social stereotypes.
Ram, what were your primary thoughts behind creating an Indian female superhero who is a gang rape survivor?
Ram: The idea to create “Priya’s Shakti” comic book series came after the horrible gang rape that happened in a bus in New Delhi in 2012. While researching about sexual violence in India, I observed that it was a cultural problem. I also realized after talking to survivors that there was a lack of support among society for the survivors of gender-based violence. I felt in order to really address that, we had to approach it from a cultural point of view. We tried to do it by creating a female comic book character who can reach young audiences. Our goal was to change people’s perception at a very early age about the role of women, and especially their perception of survivors. I spent an extensive amount of time, in the beginning, going around talking to survivors — talking to NGOs, philosophers, poets etc. The core of this was to get the perspective of the people who became the characters of the comic book.
Apart from destigmatizing sexual violence survivors, what are the other attributes of Priya which helps dismantle the patriarchy and social norms?
Ram: One of the core values of Priya is that she conquers her own fear. As a result of the stigma and trauma that survivors face, they internalize a lot of their fears, for obvious reasons. And it really prevents survivors from moving forward with their lives. Talking with psychologists and survivors, I realized that it’s very important for the survivors to overcome their fears. Once they overcome fear, they can start gaining control of their own lives and hopefully begin the healing process. So that’s what Priya really is a symbol of — overcoming fear. In the beginning of the first chapter, she rides a tiger which she was afraid of, but she overcame it, and turned her fear into power or Shakti.
The second unique thing about Priya is that most superheroes have super powers. Priya actually has no superpowers. Her superpower is the power of persuasion. She persuaded people, the survivors and society, to go about making the changes. I think that’s actually a much stronger power than what a superhero might have in a typical comic book setting.
Dipti: I think what I love about Priya is that she is very compassionate. She is also the voice of transformation. I can specifically speak about the third chapter, where she wants people to change for the good. And that’s something I love about her.
The other thing that I really like about her is that she doesn’t just go blindly against men. She’s also telling the women how they can step up and how they also play a role in keeping patriarchy alive. I say this a lot ‘patriarchy is not our fault, but it is our responsibility’. It’s something that has been passed down generations after generations. it’s up to us how we dismantle it and how we actually rise up against it or rather rise up into it to create a world that is equal.
I think women also need to be able to challenge the existing laws, norms or cultural values so that we can become better by actually evaluating what is working and what’s not working through those changes.
For you as a filmmaker, was creating a comic book, was your first choice? Are there reasons why you chose to make comic books, not a documentary?
Ram: Initially, I looked at making a documentary after the 2012 bus rape in Delhi. But, it was really difficult to make a story at that time . In order to tell a character driven story, I had to talk with a lot of people about the incidence. Given that everyone was overwhelmed with anguish and emotions after the incidence, it was very hard to talk about these issues. After realizing that I couldn’t make the documentary about it, I looked at other options.
I used to watch old Bollywood mythological films from the 1970s and was amused by how the diverging roles of men and women in mythology influenced society. I approached from that angle and started discussing this with my team who were involved in the project.
Then I ended up cutting those mythological films like a short film. They were made in the 70s using Technicolor and were very hyperreal with the special effects from the 70s. And I said, ‘this looks like a comic book’. That’s sort of where the direction got pivoted.
Another reason for choosing a comic book was that I wanted to reach young audiences through this project in particular, because during the protests at Delhi — I saw a lot of young protesters. They were very angry and frustrated dealing with violence against women all the time. I wanted to reach this group of audience and tap into their energy.
Dipti, you were the co-author of Priya and The Lost Girls. Would you mind sharing what the story is about and what specific message does it convey?
Dipti: The story of Priya and The Lost Girls is about social stigma associated with sex trafficking and social barriers faced by the sex-trafficking survivors. We wanted to do it in a way which would fit the format of a comic book and also speak to younger audiences. So we set up the plot in an imaginary underworld and created these characters that were not human. We were very careful about not stigmatizing any individual or community. We used the behaviors that we don’t support and created monsters with those qualities. We also came up with a half female, half snake character who is a symbol of matriarchy. Our designing team did a fantastic job bringing them to life. They look so appealing and entertaining for a young reader. I think that kind of added a whole new level to the book, which tells the readers that it is not a person who is bad but the qualities. You can always choose to shift those qualities on a certain level.
Did either of you ever face any backlashes for your attempt in breaking stereotypes and challenging patriarchy ?
Ram: Strangely enough, I have not faced backlash for doing a feminist female driven comic books. I’ve always said that men should be actively involved in fighting gender inequality. This is not a woman’s issue. It’s both a men and a women’s issue.
However, in the beginning a lot of people assumed it was a woman behind this comic book as it was a female comic character. I received a lot of troll messages and obscene photos in the beginning. But, it hasn’t been that bad since the first comic came out.
Dipti: I’ve always just gotten support. There was one incident where a gentleman publicly talked about how he thought I was a disgrace to India, as he harbors a certain image of how an Indian woman should be and how she should be presented.
Dipti, What’s your idea about feminism?
Dipti: I am a feminmist, but not one of those feminists who is mad at men. I am very aware of how it’s a collective measure that we all have to take. I also try as best as I can not to blame our ancestors. They only did what they knew best, they felt compelled to pass on the cultural values that they inherited to their children.
I don’t believe in blaming or pointing fingers at people, I think that’s another reason why I don’t receive the kind of backlash that many other feminists might be receiving. In all of my work. I’m very careful to not villainize people, but rather just have them be speaking that truth.
Ram, what’s your message to all men and boys as a male advocate of gender equality?
Ram: Women have the same rights as men. Men should not be threatened by women or feel when women rise, they are taking power away from men. Everyone can rise together.