For Ram Devineni, Priya’s Mask, the latest in the series of Priya’s adventures, is deeply personal. Earlier this year, as the world went into lockdown due to the covid-19 pandemic, there were very few tools for parents to talk about the virus with children. In fact, the roots of the story lie in a discussion between his 3-year-old niece and her mother. “She did not have someone to tell her feelings to. She said this at the height of the lockdown when everything was shut down and she was taken out of school,” says Devineni, documentary film-maker and founder of the US-based media house Rattapallax.
Since March, he has been reading to her using Facetime. These include different children’s digital books from the New York Public Library. “So, that was a motivating factor in creating the latest comic and film,” says Devineni, who started Priya’s Shakti in 2014 as one of the first comic books to use augmented reality to create a discourse around gender-based violence. He created these in collaboration with artist Dan Goldman and writers such as Paromita Vohra. The team hailed Priya as India’s first female animated superhero.
Priya’s Mask carries forth the ideas of strength and empowerment while also trying to understand the emotional toll that the isolation has had on young people. The comic also touches on the toll the pandemic has taken on caregivers and frontline workers. Devineni’s father, a pediatrician for 40 years, had to leave his practice in February as he belonged to a vulnerable age group. He also lost two friends, both Indian doctors, to covid-19. “Everyone has many opinions about the pandemic, but the universal agreement is that we need to support our healthcare workers as they are risking their lives for our safety,” elaborates Devineni.
In fact the effect of covid-19 on women has barely been measured, who have been on the forefront as caregivers and medical workers. “Priya's Mask honours women healthcare workers and their families,” he adds. “Also, living in isolation has been difficult, and especially for children. We felt this needed to be focused on through Meena, the little girl in the comic book. Additionally, we wanted a creative way for parents to talk about the pandemic and loneliness with their children.”
The latest instalment of the comic book is also accompanied by an animated short film, featuring the voices from the US and India, including Rosanna Arquette, Vidya Balan, Mrunal Thakur, and Sairah Kabir. Priya’s Mask has been produced by Tanvi Gandhi, Indrani Ray, and Monika Samtani, written by Shubhra Prakash, with illustrations and animation by Syd Fini, Hamid Bahrami and Neda Kazemifar. The latest in the series also presents a collaboration between Priya and successful female comic book superheroes from neighbouring countries such as Burka Avenger, Pakistan’s first superhero. In a media statement, writer Shubhra Prakash stated that the virus neither understands nor respects borders, so there was a natural synergy between the two cultural heroes.
According to Devineni, the comic book is also the perfect format for augmented reality as the images are perfect markers to tell stories. “We have created several unique AR experiences that address the pandemic. There are augmented reality masks that you can wear using Snapchat, Facebook Messenger and Instagram AR interfaces. Just remember that these are only for social media and should not be a substitute for real masks,” he says.