comic books

How the World Bank got involved with a comic book series on crimes against women

And how the comics came to add the perpetrators’ point of view.

After winning critical acclaim globally, Ram Devineni’s second comic book, Priya’s Mirror, bagged the Special Jury Prize at FilmGate Interactive Media Festival, Miami, in February. Even as he is prepping for exhibitions at Gainesville, Copenhagen and Brisbane, the New York City-based Devineni, along with the Los Angeles-based illustrator Dan Goldman is working on the story of the third book in the series.

The duo was in India to meet NGOs and sex-trafficked women whose story the next volume, Priya And The Last Girls, will tell. Using virtual reality techniques, the pathbreaking comic book will take the reader around Sonagachi, Kolkata’s famous red-light area and will probably run much longer than Devineni’s first two books.

The World Bank’s WEvolve programme, which deals with gender-based violence across the world, funded the successful Priya’s Mirror and may be interested in backing Priya And The Last Girls. The founder of the programme, Maria Correia, told Scroll.in of the organisation’s unconventional approach, using “edutainment” to understand and address the social norms at the root of the problem.

Edutainment to comics

Correia had worked on social and gender issues with the World Bank for over 18 years when the global outrage over the Delhi gangrape in December 2012 galvanised the organisation into action. “That really was the starting point for us,” she said. Prior to that, the Bank had done little work with gender-based violence, she added.

Correia acknowledged that it was the release of the World Health Organisation’s 2013 report on violence on women triggered the Bank’s response. The report estimated that one in three women across the world have and will face gender violence in their lifetime. “That was when the pervasive nature of the problem became clear to us,” said the British Columbia-based Correia.

In March 2015, she founded WEvolve to bring young men and women together to understand and challenge gender stereotypes and combat violence by engaging the attention of their “elders and peers”. Using the power of creative industries and popular culture, WEvolve is trying to drive social change.

Its methods are not the usual ones. In Mumbai, WEvolve announced its presence with a Blue Runway fashion show by designer Manish Malhotra. “We aimed to bring a new and creative approach to a highly sensitive and intractable subject that brings new actors to the issue and has broader reach and impact,” Correia explained.

In the past two years, her organisation has produced videos, supported edutainment programmes in Nepal and a gender-based violence programme for workers in the Bangladesh garment industry.

During her research for WEvolve, Correia learned of the global impact of Priya’s Shakti, which was launched in December 2014. “We realised that a comic book could potentially involve a much broader socio-economic group and also convey the message more subtly unlike a lot of work done on gender-based violence,” she said. With the comic’s target audience – preteens and teens – being a major part of WEvolve’s audience, the fit was obvious.

The World Bank gets involved

And so, in 2015, WEvolve approached Devineni to fund the World Bank’s first comic book, Priya’s Mirror, the second chapter of Priya’s Shakti. Revolving around acid attack survivors across the world, the story of Priya’s Mirror highlights the emotional and physical impediments, as well as the stigma, they encounter while reintegrating into their communities and how the stigma attached to the act makes it so tough.

Interestingly, the World Bank did end up influencing the storyline. This came in the form of an introduction to the perpetrator’s perspective. “We do not deny that an acid attack is a horrific crime, but in this story we have taken a step to understand the societal norms that impact the attacker’s behaviour,” Correia said.

WEvolve’s research had revealed that most of the work on violence against women in South Asia was focussed on helping the victim. “We wanted to launch a programme to understand why violence takes place at all,” explained Correia. “Any gender-based programme would say that we need to engage men and boys – it’s a politically correct way of putting it. But I think much more radically than that.”

In Correia’s view, the world needs to take on male gender issues to understand the lives of men. “We need to turn our attention to the behaviours of the perpetrators and ask what is driving them to use this violence,” she said. “There is a dire need to introspect why so many men use violence against women, even their own family, why it is so commonplace across the world and how institutions, peers and women themselves perpetuate this practise.”

While the intention is not to absolve men of their responsibility, there is a need to stop propagating these norms and practices. “I’m sure it can be achieved if both men and women work together,” declared Correia.

We can probably expect Priya and the Last Girls to take that story further.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.