Sailesh Gopalan’s webcomic Brown Paperbag takes subtle, satirical jabs at the many hypocrisies and contradictions of India. Through the experiences of a teenage boy named Kabir, it builds scenarios that are relatable for middle-class urban Indians, and, as it turns out, audiences in several parts of the world.
In a comic titled Cowerage, for instance, Kabir’s sister Ananya is watching television in the dark, shrinking away from the screen as if she were watching a horror film. In the final panel, Kabir turns on the light and says something that could be true in several parts of the world right now: “News channel again, huh?”
In the past year, the 21-year-old Mumbai resident’s Brown Paperbag has acquired more than 1.4 lakh followers on Facebook and over 81,000 followers on Instagram. “I wanted to try something that was meant for India specifically, but was also universally relatable,” said Gopalan, an alumnus of the Bengaluru’s Srishti Institute of Art and Design.
The name for the comic was inspired by Indian skin, but also the unvarnished realities of everyday life. “I was trying to portray society as it really is, without the mask that people put on,” Gopalan said. “When you look at old cartoons, you see brown paper bags with two eyeholes punched in them that people put on their heads to hide.”
Inspired by Shen’s webcomic Bluechair, which appears on the digital comics platform Webtoons, Gopalan’s work often dissects the power relations inherent in contemporary Indian social relationships. One of Gopalan’s more popular comics shows a group of men harassing a bikini-clad woman. A policeman appears on the scene and the woman expects him to come to her aid – instead, he says, “You can’t be dressed like that in public! I am going to have to fine you for that!”
However, its creator insists that the comic is not meant to be a political comment. “There are enough political comics in India,” he said. “I wanted to do something about the people instead of the people in power. Most of my ideas come from observations. The way I portray the characters, they are stereotypes – they are not based on any particular group of people.”
Brown Paperbag also typically exaggerates the conventional social roles assigned to parents, teenagers and siblings. In one comic, Kabir and his sister are firmly united when they tell their mother that they are able to handle their own problems and don’t require her assistance. The mother relents, but the next panel shows her smiling smugly as Kabir asks her to help him find his misplaced socks, and his sister asks her to buy shampoo.
Another comic features Kabir’s mother cleaning the house with great gusto and handing her husband a fresh T-shirt to wear. “So I guess we have guests coming over,” Kabir says in the final panel, while his baffled father concurs.
Brown Paperbag has an uncomplicated, stripped-down aesthetic, in which the narrative is more important than the details. There is seldom any detailing in the background either, and the characters are sketched in simple, neat lines. Gopalan’s approach to storytelling is influenced by Japanese manga artist Eiichiro Oda, creator of the pirate adventure One Piece, but he altered his drawing style for Brown Paperbag. Eventually, he hopes to introduce 2-D animation to Brown Paperbag.
“Most of my other drawings are really anatomically accurate, and this style was something I dabbled in as an experiment,” he said. “I am still experimenting with styles and technique.” He said he finds this effacement of detail harder to accomplish than his usual, intricate style.
Facebook Insights, a tool that tracks user interaction, has informed Gopalan that 90% of his readers are from India, aged 14 and above. This is the demographic he caters to. But the popularity of Brown Paperbag in other countries testifies to the universal nature of human experiences. Gopalan’s comic enjoys a global readership due to its presence on Webtoons, where users from various countries leave comments on his work. For instance, a comic that captures the caprices of Indian weather elicited a comment from a user named James that reads: “That is a lot like Tennessee weather. There is saying here that goes ‘if you don’t like the weather, just wait fifteen minutes and it’ll change!’”
A comic that features men criticising couples getting amorous on a park bench, but eventually urinating in public, has a comment from a user who enquires, “Is this Russia?”
“I am not trying to spark any sort of mental revolution, [I just want] people to realise that they are not alone in facing certain situations,” Gopalan said. “People don’t have to feel like what is happening to them is an exception.”