In 2015, 349 cases of acid attacks were reported in India, the highest in the world. The victims – mostly women between the ages of 14 and 35 – undergo immense trauma. Some die. Others are blinded, scarred, and left to deal with strong social stigmas. In 2013, after years of campaigning, India finally recognised acid throwing as a separate offence, with punishment ranging from a minimum of 10 years to life imprisonment. In the same year, the Supreme Court ordered the government to limit over-the-counter acid sales to people over 18. But that directive has been observed largely in the breach, and the conviction rates for such attacks remains abysmal.
“But now Priya is on the case.”
We were first introduced to Priya in the highly popular 2014 comic book Priya’s Shakti. Co-creator and documentary film-maker Ram Devineni was in Delhi in 2012 when protests broke out after the infamous gang rape case. Inspired by the youthful energy of the protesters, he created Priya as a way to tackle the issue of gender violence in the country. In the sequel Priya’s Mirror, the feminist Indian superhero – a gang-rape survivor herself – returns to team up with a group of acid attack survivors and defeat the demon Ahankar. Accompanied by a ferocious tiger and armed with an enchanted ‘mirror of love’, Priya once again proves that love and acceptance can triumph over fear.
“The problems acid attack survivors face were exactly the same problems that rape survivors faced – the victim-blaming, the depression, the stigma surrounding the victims,” says Devineni, who spent a lot of time over the past year talking to acid attack victims and activists in India and abroad. Many of the activists he spoke to – including Laxmi from Delhi NGO Stop Acid Attacks, Colombia’s Natalia Ponce de Leon and Monica Singh from New York – ended up in the comic, their real-life experiences woven into the narrative. “Our main character Priya is a rape survivor and her working with acid attack victims were a great way to link the two problems and to continue addressing gender violence,” Devineni adds.
Like the first book, Priya’s Mirror combines simple, compassionate story-telling with Dan Goldman’s amazing comic art style. Goldman uses photo-collage and Amar Chitra Katha homage to create a fantastical reflection of the real world from which these stories come. His art is also perfectly suited for the comic’s innovative use of Augmented Reality (AR) to bring the stories to life. If you look at the comic’s pages through the popular Blippar app, the comic turns into a pop-up book. Videos, interviews and animations jump out at you, and add another layer of immersion. They’ve even taken brought AR to Indian streets. Aim your smartphone camera at one of the walls painted in Bangalore (see video) or the Mumbai neighbourhood of Dharavi, and you can step into the beautiful world Goldman has created. “AR is perfectly designed for the demographic we are targeting: teenagers,” says Devineni, adding that he got the idea on a trip to Rome, when he wanted to get a closer look at the panels on the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling. “We were pushing AR in Dharavi two years before Pokemon GO existed!”
At the comic’s premiere at the New York Film Festival last month, the Priya’s Shakti team took things to a whole new level with the Last Mask campaign. If the comic reimagines AR as a story-telling technique, this redeploys the technology for social media activism. The idea comes from Natalia Ponce de Leon’s successful campaign in Colombia. An acid attack survivor herself, de Leon sent physical masks representing disfigured faces to the country’s top politicians, journalists, athletes and celebrities. To support her campaign, they just had to put on the mask, click a photo and share it online. “We took literally that mask and integrated it into the augmented reality of our comic book,” Devineni says. “The cover is embedded with a short video explaining the Last Mask and then you can put the mask on your face, almost like Snapchat, and share it with your friends on social media.”
It’s campaigns like this, as well as the many outreach programmes organised in collaboration with NGO partners like Apne Aap Worldwide, Stop Acid Attacks and the Mahendra Singh Foundation, that make Priya’s Shakti so much more than just a comic book series. Over the past couple of years, they have conducted workshops all over India and given out over 28,000 free print copies of the two books. Next year, in collaboration with the Lions’ Club, they are planning a test run of the comic in a dozen schools in New Delhi. Eventually, the plan is to devise a curriculum for the Indian school system. “One of the reasons why the comic book has been such a success is that we’ve developed partnerships where the comic book is being used as a social activism tool,” says Devineni.
Priya’s Mirror has received accolades and glowing press all around the world, but its creators are hardly sitting around basking in the adulation. They’ve already begun research on their next comic, the third installment in a planned five part series. This time, Priya takes on the dark world of sex trafficking. “We were inspired by Apne Aap Worldwide’s The Last Girl campaign, and the third chapter is actually called Priya and the Last Girl,” explains Devineni. “Dan [Goldman] and I were in Sonagachi a couple of weeks ago and we spoke to about 20-25 women who were trafficked into Sonagachi. They gave us a ton of information and research to develop the next story. The basic idea is that we want to take Sonagachi and transform it into an underground city underneath an active volcano. It’s early days but we’re very excited about the idea.”
Priya’s Mirror is available for free download in English, Hindi, Portuguese, Spanish and Italian. Visit www.priyashakti.com for more details.