March 31, 2015
A Different Kind of Superhero: Fighting Sexual Violence in India
By Ram Devineni
Filmmaker and co-creator of Priya’s Shakti

I was in Delhi in December 2012 when a 23-year-old woman, Jyoti Singh Pandey, was brutally beaten and gang-raped on a bus. She later died from her wounds, and the incident sparked protests all over India.

Like many people, I was horrified by what had happened to this woman, who became known as Nirbhaya (fearless one), and I was angered by the indifference exhibited by government authorities at every level.

There was an enormous outcry in particular from young adults and teenagers, both women and men. At one of the protests, my colleague and I spoke to a Delhi police officer and asked him for his opinion on what had happened on the bus. His response was essentially that “no good girl walks home at night,” implying that she probably deserved it, or at least provoked the attack.

I knew then that the problem of sexual violence in India was not a legal issue – it was a cultural one. A cultural shift was needed, especially regarding views towards the role of women in modern society. Deep-rooted patriarchal views needed to be challenged.

For about a year, I traveled around India and Southeast Asia learning from poets, philosophers, activists, and sociologists, working for non-governmental organizations focused on gender-based violence.

Talking with several rape survivors, I realized how difficult it was for them to seek justice, and how their lives were constantly under threat after they reported the crime. Their families, local communities, and even the police discouraged them from pursuing criminal action against their attackers. The burden of shame was placed on the victims and not the perpetrators. This created a level of impunity among certain men to commit more rapes.

On a parallel journey of understanding, I began researching Hindu mythology and discovered the many rich stories involving regular people and the gods. Often a favorite disciple would call on the gods for help during dire situations. So, I began formulating a new mythological tale about Priya, a human woman and ardent devotee of the goddess Parvati who has experienced a brutal rape and the social stigma and isolation resulting from it.

The goddess Parvati is horrified to learn about the sexual violence that women on Earth face on a daily basis, and is determined to change this disturbing reality. Inspired by the goddess, Priya breaks her silence. She sings a message of women’s empowerment that enraptures thousands and moves them to take action against gender-based violence around the world.

I worked with an amazing team to create a comic book, called Priya’s Shakti, around this story: Vikas K. Menon and I co-wrote the script, Dan Goldman did the artwork, and Lina Srivastava and I co-produced the comic.

We wanted to emphasize, through Priya’s Shakti, that things can change. Creating a cultural shift is incredibly difficult, but not impossible.

India is going through some remarkable and monumental changes in a short period of time, and some people’s views have not caught up with these changes. What was clear to me from the massive protests that happened all over India after the horrible incident in December 2012 is that we want things to change in our country.

We released Priya’s Shakti at the Mumbai Film and Comics Convention in December 2014, and it immediately went viral. The digital version has already been downloaded more than 500,000 times, and the comic book has been featured in at least 300 news stories all over the world. All of the major media outlets in India covered the story, and it has started a national debate on patriarchal views and how society treats rape survivors.

Our next step is to work with NGOs and educational institutions to release the comic book into schools and include it in the curriculum. Can a comic book change people’s views towards gender-based violence? This is the big question we want to tackle soon.

Ram DevineniRam Devineni is a filmmaker, publisher, and founder of Rattapallax films and magazine. He recently produced The Russian Woodpecker, which won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. He is the co-creator of the augmented reality comic book Priya’s Shakti, which received the 2015 Tribeca Film Institute New Media Fund from the Ford Foundation. The Priya Shakti comic book can be found at www.priyashakti.com.