Two years ago this day, a 23-year-old woman was brutally gang-raped on a moving bus in New Delhi. Three days later she died from her injuries. The incident pushed millions in the city and all over India to protest the widespread violence against women. The protests led to tougher laws and empowered women to stand up against sexual violence.
And one man was inspired to create a comic book superhero.
Ram Devineni, a New York-based filmmaker, gave life to Priya, a survivor of gang rape who seeks to stop violence against women.
It started with a conversation with a New Delhi policeman in the days after the rape. “I asked what he thought about what had happened on the bus,” says Devineni. “I’m paraphrasing here, but he basically said ‘No good girl walks home alone at night,’ which implies she deserved it or provoked it. I immediately realized the problem of sexual violence in India is not a legal issue but a cultural problem.”
After months of traveling around India talking to all sorts of people, including rape victims, about sexual violence, Devineni decided to create Priya. Shunned by her family and village after she is raped, she takes refuge in the jungle and is stalked by a tiger. Parvati, a Hindu goddess, comes to her aid and grants her special powers that include fearlessness and a magical mantra that she uses to change people’s minds.
With her new powers, Priya tames the tiger and rides him back to her village, where she begins her fight against rape and sexual violence.
Devineni is currently in India for the Mumbai Comic Con, where his graphic novel, Priya’s Shakti, will be released later this week. We spoke with him about the work. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
To me, Priya seems like an incarnation of the goddess Parvati, who also rides a tiger and once killed a murderous demon in a battle. Did you base Priya on the goddess?
We are playing with the metaphor of Parvati riding the tiger. But in our comic book, the tiger represents Priya’s shakti, her power. And she travels on the tiger, back to her community that threw her out and ostracized her, and starts challenging those patriarchal views. Like Gandhi [did on his] Salt March, she travels around India and starts gaining momentum.
What are her superpowers?
She’s a not a superhero in the comic book tradition. Her power is the power of persuasion and the power of an idea. She’s riding the tiger all over India and creating a movement [to] deal with sexual violence. One of the things I remember from the protests in Delhi in 2012 is the mere fact that millions of people all over India protested, from all different castes, class and nationalities. And they all identified with the survivor, who at the time was struggling for her life. [She died several days later.]
A superhero can do anything to change that world. Superman or Wonder Woman can stop a comet from exploding on the planet. Everyone who reads [comic books] suspends disbelief. And that’s sort of the power in Priya, that you believe she can transform the world.
Did you base Priya on the Delhi gang-rape victim, who died a horrible death but stirred up a movement?
I wasn’t directly copying Jyoti while creating Priya. But I was inspired by the movement that surrounded her and by what it was trying to achieve. It was the first time I saw all of India come together to fight the problem of sexual violence and [for] women’s equality.
Does the idea of a woman superhero who fights rape put the burden of change back on the woman?
The people have to change. But Priya gives them the motivation to change. She doesn’t force anyone to change. It’s always up to them to make that leap.
In Priya’s case, she gets her powers from Goddess Parvati. Why did you turn to Hindu mythology?
I’ve always thought the core essence of Hinduism is your ability to conquer your fears. And one of the common motifs I read growing up, especially in the popular comic book series Amar Chitra Katha, is that villagers would often call on the gods for help. I thought that the problem of sexual violence is so big that this would be ideal for someone to call on gods for help.
The reason I chose Goddess Parvati is because she’s the one who empathizes with humans, as opposed to her husband Shiva, who has the tendency to be on the mountains immersed in his own thoughts. In Hindu mythology, Goddess Parvati is the one who challenges Shiva. And I wanted a strong female protagonist who opens people’s eyes.
What do you hope to accomplish with this comic book?
Basically two goals: one is to challenge those patriarchal views and help create a cultural shift, and the second is to create empathy for rape survivors so that people who have been raped can report it and get justice.
You’ve said your target audience is teenagers, because you want to get the conversation started early?
Yes. And in all our test marketing, it [the comic book] really resonated with them. I think that’s because Priya is like every other teenager. She’s wondering about her role in the society and the world. Then all of a sudden this horrible thing happens to her and her life gets derailed by it. By conquering her own fears, she sort of finds her way in the world. That is the story that a lot of teenagers are going through. In a sense that is the essence of Star Wars or any great mythology. The hero is always on this kind of quest, a search for their own identity and role in society. Priya finds it and becomes this source of enlightenment for her community and society.