In the last three years, both the Supreme Court of India and the Indian health ministry managed the task of stumbling into the 21st century to declare the two-finger test an unscientific violation of privacy of rape victims. Whether this means the faster extinction of tags like “habituated to sex” the police and “forensics” specialists throw around is anybody’s best guess. This little legal victory, however, does little to reform the context in which such terminology exists. Between being vessels of purity and objects to be prodded, fixed or thrown out, women have historically had to live up to someone else’s standards.
Sexism (many times, violent forms of it) is still a pervasive part of Indian cultures. Indian textbooks, films, politics and media -both deliberately and inadvertently- promote seemingly self-propelling norms and codes of morality designed to dictate the identities of women. Few decades ago, Indian television constructed the vamp from a blueprint of the westernised Indian woman- red lipstick, fashionably huge bindis, an Anglicised mother tongue and the quintessential sleeveless saree blouse. It clearly defined the “modern” as “amoral” against the oft-eulogised sati savitri. Yet, there is little respite for millions of nameless women when, to quote Anand Bakshi, “sita bhi yahaan badnaam hui.”
In 2012, when the Nirbhaya rape case took international centre stage, India suddenly awoke to its “rape problem”. The most shocking part of it wasn’t that rapes happened, but the realisation that we got by so long without caring about the realities of so many -especially under-privileged, vulnerable and/or lower-caste- women.
Priya’s Shakti brings a young rural woman and the Goddess Parvati together in the fight against “patriarchy, misogyny and indifference through love, creativity and solidarity.”
A documentary film maker, Devineni found himself in India soon after the Nirbhaya rape in Delhi. Researching for Rattapallax, he interviewed policemen to gain insight into what those entrusted with people’s safety felt about the heinous crime that had gripped middle-class India. To his shock, he says, “ I still remember very clearly the exact words of the policeman. He said, ‘No decent woman goes out alone at night.’ I was very surprised to hear this, and that’s when I decided that we need a stronger movement against this kind of thinking.”
It was at this point Devineni decided to root his project in Indian mythology. If the cultures of a nation were responsible for the skewed representation, by consequence gross treatment, of women, then, perhaps, the same culture could provide the tools we desperately need to undo this grievous progression into culturally pardoned turpitudes. Shaktism, he felt, was that tool.
“I realised women needed something to overcome fear. I spoke to researchers, sociologists and so many experts,” says Devineni of his preparation.
Rattapallax’s Priya is an an embodiment of a complex problem: a mindset that deliberately arrests the development of women. The young Priya could be any girl on the planet. She’s joyful, curious, with flights of imagination to take and a universe to explore, until her father says, “Stop going to school. Stay home and take care of the house.” Even the women of the village are equal perpetrators of cultural and constitutional crimes against women.
Over the course of the story, we see Priya go through a sexism that is globally ubiquitous after being gang-raped by villagers. Shunned by kith and kin, she reflects the stories of many other women across the world who’ve been ostracised for another man’s crime. As politicians blurt not just politically incorrect but socially damaging opinions on rape and rape victims, Priya’s Shakti attempts to concentre our perspective to re-establish the crime as being more heinous than the imagined transgressions of the victim. Imbued with the strength of Goddess Parvati, Priya eventually develops the courage to fight her oppression and the rage to champion change. And, it’s a very simple change: to be treated with dignity and be able to afford the same opportunities as men.
In a sense, Priya’s Shakti, with its simple and linear narrative, is trying to disrupt the gender normative ways of thinking, where women are almost always relegated to sit behind tall walls of morality, duty, obligation and domesticity. And, the simplicity is intended. Devineni says, “The book targets age group of 10 to even people in their early 20s, especially in rural areas. The book is augmented. You can take a picture ‘with Priya’ and post it on social media. We feel technology can play an important part in spreading this message. It’s also exciting for children to read augmented comics, because we’re looking at schools to include this in their curriculum; we’re already in partnership with NGOs. It’s colourful, it’s bold and we’ve tested it on teenagers who responded very positively to the content. We’ve tried to cover all the bases in terms of engagement.”
At the moment, the Rattapallax production is in partnership with Apne Aap Women Worldwide, an NGO that assists at-risk girls and women in India. It’s supported by the Tribeca Film Institute New Media Fund and the Ford Foundation.
The augmented reality app Blippar contains exclusive material readers can access through a smartphone. The most interesting part of it is that it allows readers to engage with stories of actual survivors of rape.
“Rape is not a legal problem,” Devineni says, “it’s a cultural one. That’s why it was important to include the narratives of real women. And, to me, personally, stories are what matter the most. In Delhi, I was part of the protests, too. I started with the aim of collecting these stories. Of course, comics alone cannot change, but Priya’s Shakti is part of a larger movement, and we need more collaborations and effort to take it forward.”
In the end, the comic poses a question to its readers: “Will you stand with Priya?”
That remains to be seen.