By Ila Ananya
In Priya’s Mirror, the second comic book in the popular series Priya’s Shakti by Ram Devineni, we see Priya, who we know as a survivor of gang rape in the first comic, join a group of women who have been victims of acid attack. Together, they fight against the demon Ahankar, who has a hold over them, and yet we are never allowed to judge anybody in this comic — instead, we are asked to consider just what would happen if we gave people chances.
We spoke to filmmaker and writer Paromita Vohra, who has written Priya’s Mirror, which premiered at the Mumbai Comicon in October this year, about working on the comic, the characters and metaphors that she has created, and what it’s like to be a filmmaker writing a comic.
How did the idea for Priya’s Mirror come to you?
I met Ram [Devineni], the creator of Priya’s character, when he was in the finishing stages of his first comic. I had given him some suggestions for the comic at that time, and I guess he thought they were useful. When he decided to do this next comic, he got in touch with me. He already knew what he wanted it to be about, and we saw this as a logical next step for Priya to go to.
Priya herself survives gang rape, and in a sense, acid attacks are also a kind of sexual violence. When we talk about the idea that rape is not sex, and that it’s an act of violence and an exertion of power, it’s also important to remember that acid attacks are related. They harm the body of the person who has been attacked, and who isn’t submitting to demands, whether abstract or concrete, being made by someone. The kind of stigmatisation that acid attack victims go through parallels how rape victims get stigmatised, even ostracised since the scars are so visible. Acid attack survivors become seen as outside of normal social existence. There’s also this connection from the first issue of the comic to the next. There’s a link between the outside and the inside — when you try to talk about patriarchy as an idea, of course it has material and structural manifestations, but much of it is also to do with what is inside people, and their attitudes.
What was the process of working on the comic like?
At the purely functional level, it was an interesting exercise because I’ve never written a comic before. It was a completely new form, but in my own work, since I mix a lot of fiction and non-fiction, I felt there was a continuation of my creative preoccupations in the comic — how do you mix what’s real and what’s fictionalised? Although Priya’s Mirror is much more strongly fiction, the comic is drawing heavily from real narratives and events, without trying to disguise that these are real events that are being drawn from.
Ram had the idea of doing it around acid attacks, and the sense of a spewing of acid feeling; we hung out for a day and wrote the outline of the story.
Once Ram and I spent the day together, he went back to the US, and then I wrote the story, detailed it. I pushed towards a slightly more fable and mythology-like manner of storytelling. And to be honest I drew a lot from my screenplay writing experience to write it. Then there was the routine process of writing, cutting down, and reframing it in a comic book format. Then Dan [Goldman] made drawings, and again I rewrote some dialogue as the image version made me see the flow differently.
You’re a filmmaker. How did this influence the comic? What was challenging?
The interesting thing is that when you’re a filmmaker, you’re the one who guides the process. When you’re a writer working on another person’s project, which is different from you writing your own book, it’s like a dance someone else is leading but you have freedom to make up moves of your own within its overall structure. When you’re working as a filmmaker, everyone is bringing their energies into it; it’s just that the director is pointing to a direction to take the project in. In a comic, both at the writing level, and the fact that someone else is going to draw it, invokes this sort of similar shifting. Different energies will come in. It’s much harder in a written work than in a film, because in a film, some stages happen concurrently. The comic work happens in stages. I used the logic that I would use in screen play writing — that I should keep it very spare and taut, and there should be a lot of room for the illustrators to imagine what the images are going to be. But there must also be a strong evocation of the image world in how you write.
The biggest difference is that in film, you have motion. In comic books you don’t have motion; you don’t have the luxury of more frames. So if I want to say, “He calls her name and she is surprised”, I don’t have the luxury of him calling her name, and her being surprised, and the shift between the two. I found this to be a bigger piece of the puzzle to learn, at a graphic level. How do you evoke movement, and how do you evoke things that typically happen over a scene? That was exciting, and I think there’s a lot more to be learnt there. Also, since I wasn’t going to draw it, I kept wondering how you do this in a written work, imagining that someone will be able to do it visually. Also I think because so much has to be compressed into a frame emotionally, you worry about it being too broad or too loud but you realise that once there is emotional consistency, it all works, coherently and in one sur. If you go with the logic of broad strokes, and don’t fight it, it allows for nuance to evolve in a different way and you learn that as you work.
Priya’s Mirror works on the metaphor of the mirror of love. Where did this idea come from?
I had read this story about Parvati’s mirror of love in a piece on selfies in mythology by Devdutt Pattanaik. When Parvati falls in love with Shiva, he covers himself with ash, and tells her, I’m such a jungli, you should not marry me. She shows him the mirror of love, and tells him that when he looks in it, he would see how she saw him. When he sees himself through the eyes of her love, it’s a transformative moment. Actually the whole story of Shiva and Parvati, and Shiva and Shakti, is also the story of these different masculine and feminine energies, at some level. I think it’s a nicer way to think about things than to simplify it into flat ideas of masculinity and femininity.
It was important that the women talking about acid attacks should talk about the notion of being more than your wound, your scars. That’s what the mirror tells them. You look in the mirror, and you’re not just your scar, you were something else before, you can be something else after. This expands the narrative of how people see other people. When Priya shows them the mirror, she’s only saying look, remember what you were, and then chart out your own path. She is not a saviour; she’s just a catalysing moment of solidarity which is transformative. And she has her own experiences. This is a very classical kind of feminism, where you have your own experiences, and you learn from those, and you expand that freedom and solidarity. Priya is not interested in being the leader of the gang or anything. She’s not replacing the occupation of one hierarchical position with another; it’s like dismantling that position all together. I think this is important.
But this idea of looking at the same thing with a new eye has been central to my work. I have this tag line on my email, which is “badli teri nazar, toh nazare badal gaye”, which means that when your gaze changes, the world changes. This is also what feminism offers — a chance to look at the world through a different lens, and see meanings and possibilities that weren’t evident before.
Where does Priya’s character fall in the many conversations we’ve had on superheroines?
Priya isn’t exactly like a superheroine. She doesn’t have any magical powers. What she does have is access to Parvati who gives her magical things and shows her her own inner power – which she helps others to access too then.
One of my favourite fantasy books is the Bartimaeus Trilogy, by Jonathan Stroud. I love it because it’s really involving, and so complex, philosophical, and political. It tells you that magic is something you harness from someplace else with a kind of meditative and urgent force. It isn’t based on the idea of an innately superior being, but more an innate desire and ability, and I think that’s a very vital difference. There’s nobody who’s innately superior, but they acquire abilities, which are mythical, or magical, or explainable by a different logic.
In Priya’s Mirror, this is focused on at every turning point as an idea. When Shiva saves the young man before he became Ahankar from dying, he also says that it’s up to him what he does after this – will he use the boon to free himself or will he cling to the wound and violence. Ahankar chooses the latter, becoming toxic and bloats into a demon. He mirrors the masculine violence wreaked on him and multiplies it. When Parvati gives the mirror to Priya, she doesn’t give it to her to vanquish Ahankar, but to liberate the women, because that’s crucial. Priya asks Parvati how am she is going to defeat him, and Parvati says that before defeating him, she had to understand where he came from. What she doesn’t say, but what happens, is that this shift from thinking about how to vanquish Ahankar to liberating the women using the mirror, does turn him back into a person, from a demon, because the mirror reflects his image back to him too.
But he refuses to look, and he refuses to be liberated again. Priya leaves the mirror with him, and Kusum doesn’t leave him. So you’re left with the possibility that perhaps he will look in the mirror and be liberated – and the person who once loved him and knew how he once was, continues to cling to some hope of this journey. The idea of liberation (not victory) versus defeat is embedded in the story. This is a reframing of how we can think about superheroes and superhero stories. Most of them are — I have a wound, I’m avenging that wound, I’m saving people while avenging that wound. But the character remains in the wound and can’t transcend it. You can transcend your wound.
We know Ahankar as a demon, but his character doesn’t fit into the binary so easily. Could you tell us about his character?
Ahankar has done something horrible, but who was he before he did this? Can he ever become something else? That’s a question, because if we can’t imagine it, we’re basically saying that society can’t change, and people can’t change. Unless you’re willing to imagine the perpetrator of a horrible crime as a person who can change, what’s the point of talking about anything?
When we say that men are as much victims of patriarchy as women, we have to also put this into our narratives, but we almost never do. The acid is a metaphor for toxic masculinity. When Ahankar is a young man, and he’s not Ahankar, he’s in love with Kusum, and he has an encounter with toxic masculinity. This happens when the men beat him up, and laugh that he’s not a man if he’s writing this kind of poetry. The encounter with the masculinity happens with him being made to drink that acid. He almost dies, and he is saved by Kusum’s love, because she prays. She keeps saying, don’t let him die; don’t let him die, which is my favourite panel in the comic, because the whole panel fills up with her prayer. That’s really just her love saying that let him not die — I can’t stop it from happening, but I don’t want it to happen.
The moment that her prayers are heard, and Shiva gives a boon, we see Shiva tell Parvati that it’s really up to him, what he does with the boon. The giving of the boon doesn’t mean that the encounter itself can be unwritten, so it’s up to him to either make his life better, or be stuck in violence. Ahankar means ego, so it is a kind of egotism of violence, which won’t allow you to progress beyond your pain and anger and need for revenge and control.
Ahankar isn’t going around committing acid attacks, and rather, he seems to be a saviour. But he’s not a saviour, because he tells the women that nobody wants them, and that they can’t be more than a victim. He wants to keep them paralysed in that way, to keep them fixed in one way of thinking of a memory of one wound. When we speak about paternalistic approaches of, “I’ll look after women, other men are creeps,” (but the men who look after you are not creeps), these notions also exist within masculinity. Anyone can be masculine in this sense, you can say you’re a saviour but to keep being a saviour, you have to make sure people are victims.
As an artist and a feminist, I think these two are intertwined, because art is asking you to see what is not evident, to synthesise the differences in society around us, and move forward. At this moment, when I look at the kind of people claiming to dismantle privilege around me, the discussions are always to maintain positions of power, by speaking supposedly on behalf of the marginalised. We have to talk carefully about how we’re making changes in society. If we start speaking about change in ways that preserve powerful positions of privilege, while ensuring the marginalised remain marginalised, though pretending otherwise through ingratiation or false beneveloence, then there’s no difference between the two sides. This was an important thing to say in Priya’s Mirror without getting into a violent blame narrative — you don’t reproduce violence, you don’t counter violence with more violence.
We talked about this when I wrote the first version of the story and sent it. We had a discussion about whether Priya should have a shield. I said no, because for me, fighting violence with violence is not going to change anything. What about the radical notion that we can fight violence with love? What if I just don’t submit to your paradigm, but function by my own? You can offer people ways of looking, and allow them to choose whether they like this way of looking. As a writer, as a filmmaker, this is the only power you have.
Did working on the comic do anything to your own writing?
Maybe, I haven’t really thought about it. You know, people are always arguing with me, and asking me when I’m going to write a book. I’m just like, I write two columns a week, and that’s so much, isn’t that equal to a book? This shows a hierarchy, that real writing is in a book, and everything else is just kind of by the way or on the way. I don’t believe that. I believe that writing should exist in a world and be in relation to people’s lives. I feel all art should be like that.
The thing is that I like trying out new forms just to see what it is like to write that way. That’s what I was trying to learn with the comic also. Every time that I’ve worked on something that is in a popular medium what I try to learn is, how do you communicate very directly without being simplistic in fresh ways? This is also something you learn when you’re writing a 600-word column every week. You need to communicate directly, but you want to say something complex. How do you do it? The fear is that if you want to write a comic book that’s so broad — comics always function with very broad strokes — is that you’ll be simplistic, and that you’ll end up being black and white, or immature. It’s good to confront this fear. You learn that there’s a way to use this broad stroke.
Who are comic artists or graphic novelists you like reading?
I’m not a big comic book reader, to be honest. When I’ve read a graphic book or a comic, I have happened to read it, as I’ve happened to read many things. Obviously when I read Persepolis I loved it, and Joe Sacco, and I loved Amar Chitra Katha as a kid. But I read all kinds of things, and I’m not dedicated to comics as a thing.
What was it like to see Priya’s Mirror along with the other comics at Mumbai Comicon?
There weren’t a lot of comics at Mumbai Comicon; there was a lot of merchandise. I feel like this comic book culture that people talk about at Comicon is a kind of lifestyle import. There were very few comics. What was sweet was all the young people fooling around and the cosplay was fun.
I think one of the nice things about Priya’s Shakti as a project is that it’s drawing very strongly on popular Indian comic tradition. It’s drawing strongly from Amar Chitra Katha, and it’s not doing that ironically. I do feel like we have a kind of high art graphic book thing in India. Obviously there are some well-known and beautiful practitioners of it, but actually, in an everyday sense, there’s a lot to be done in Indian comics. Priya’s Mirror kind of occupies that space.
At Comicon, you see in the kids there that they’re searching for something, but very rarely are they given the things they’re looking for. People are looking for something that they can relate to, which will be resonant. I mean where is Buffy the Vampire Slayer for young Indians? It isn’t there.
I’m not sure if I’ll work on the next comic for Priya, but I like that from the first to second comic books, what we did was to make Priya very kickass. And she should become kickass-ier. We didn’t restrict ourselves. It’s like when one comic untethers itself; it’s linked to the first comic obviously, but in this one, Priya’s got new outfit, a new look, the tiger flies, she has a warm relationship with the tiger whose name is Sahas (so together they are Love and Courage). It’s a strong emotional thing because the tiger knows what she has felt — when she has bad dreams, the tiger licks her face to soothe her. People want this kind of strong interiority, and they should have much more of it. They’re all roaming around, 15-20 year olds at comicon. We need to give them something to nourish that need and all they get is a t-shirt.