Indian superhero Priya has battled rape, acid attacks and trafficking. And now she's fighting the new coronavirus.
Priya's Mask is the latest installation in Priya, the hit comic book series targeted to Indian children. This time, Priya and her flying tiger Sahas befriend a little girl named Meena to show the sacrifices made by frontline health-care workers — and why it's important to be courageous and compassionate during the pandemic.
The 15-page comic book, available to download for free online, comes with a two-minute animated film, featuring the voices of Bollywood stars such as Vidya Balan and Mrunal Thakur. Both premiered in London at the Global Health Film Festival in December.
"When we start being anxious and thinking about ourselves, we need someone to tell us to think about the sacrifices people are making to make sure we are safe," says Shubhra Prakash, who wrote the script for Priya's Mask. In essence, she says, everyone needs a Priya to make sense of a world turned upside down.
The character of Priya, clad in a traditional outfit worn by Indian women, the salwar kameez, was created by Ram Devineni, who is Indian American, in 2014. The idea was to use comic books to help children in India understand difficult topics — especially those that are heavily stigmatized.
The first comic, Priya's Shakti, was developed in response to a brutal gang rape of a young woman in a New Delhi bus in 2012 who died as a result of her injuries. It portrays Priya as a rape survivor fighting stigma and sexual violence. There's also Priya's Mirror, about acid attacks, and Priya and the Lost Girls, about freeing young women entrapped in the sex industry.
The comic series has earned critical acclaim, including the honor of "gender equality champion," by U.N. Women and attention from the international press. And it has garnered millions of book downloads, finding an audience in India and beyond.
Devineni and his team started envisioning Priya's Mask in May after the U.S. Embassy in Delhi invited them to apply for a grant."
One of the motivations to bring back Priya during the pandemic was to tackle false information, says Devineni. "There was so much disinformation being spread on social media about the virus, blaming people of different nationalities, religions, even poor people."
In the new comic, Priya invites Meena to join her and Sahas — Hindi for "courage" — on a magical ride through the city. Along the way to the hospital, where Meena's mother is a frontline health worker, they see her friend who misses her grandmother's hugs and Meena's favorite ice-cream parlor, now empty because of the lockdown.
Meena also gets a bird's eye (or tiger's eye) view of her city and hears all the pandemic disinformation bubbling around: Someone says there is no virus, and another person says only the poor get it.
Then Priya hops across the border to Pakistan where she teams up with another iconic South Asian female superhero: Jiya from Pakistan's comic series Burka Avenger. Together, they tackle the mustachioed (and unmasked) Baba Kaboom, who wants to spread the virus all over the town of Chutneyville.
Devineni had long wanted to connect Jiya and Priya, and the virus gave him that opportunity. "The virus doesn't respect borders," says Devineni. "I thought we could come together to fight the epidemic."
For the team behind Priya's Mask, scattered over different cities and continents, the comic became a "safe space, our bubble," says Indrani Ray, co-producer of the animated film.
Devineni's parents are both doctors. His father, who has been a pediatrician since 1975 in New Jersey, shut down his practice because of the pandemic. He's attended the funerals of two of his friends via Zoom. Co-producer Tanvi Gandhi says her family lost someone very close to them to COVID-19. "Not being able to say goodbye, it was an experience none of us will ever forget," she says.
Pop culture such as comics can make it easier to help important messages get through, says Mallika Dutt, an Indian American social justice advocate and the founder of Breakthrough, a global organization that tackles hot-button social issues in creative ways, such as a video game about U.S. immigration detention and an album of ballads to talk about domestic violence. "Popular culture is a powerful way to influence social change," says Dutt, who says she loved the images in Priya's Mask. "It gets people to listen and react in a way that doesn't feel didactic and lecturing."
Devineni says when the team envisioned Priya's Mask six months ago, they had no idea if it would still be relevant by the time the film and comic got done. But one thing he knew for sure. "Priya is a survivor of gender-based violence. She's a survivor, not a victim," he says.
A U.S. version of the animated film, featuring Hollywood actress Rosanna Arquette as the voice of Sahas, will soon be released. And when it's safer, the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi plans to distribute free copies of the book to Indian schoolchildren.
The team is already planning a future installment that will send a positive message about vaccines.
Based in Kolkata, Sandip Roy is the author of the novel Don't Let Him Know. He tweets @sandipr.