Ram Devineni was inspired to address the issue of gender-based violence in India through a transmedia project, with the goal of changing attitudes towards rape victims in the country. In this blog post (originally published at Factual for Asia), Jaya Mahajan talks to Devineni about the development of Priya’s Shakti.

About Priya’s Shakti

Genre: Multimedia: Comic book with augmented reality, street art, social media
Producer: Rattapallax, Inc. and Ram Devineni
Budget: $250,000 (U.S. Dollars)
Developed at: Crossover Labs and DOK Leipzig Net Lab
Funded by: Tribeca New Media Fund, Ford Foundation

Rape and gender-based violence is one of the most distressing issues facing modern India. Everyday there are reports of violent rapes — in villages and India’s biggest cities, of 3-year-olds and 80-year-olds. Crimes take place in homes, taxis and buses. Violence against women is cutting across caste, class, age and location.

New York-based producer Ram Devineni was in New Delhi in December 2012 taking part in a protest march against the much-publicized brutal gang rape of a young girl. He spoke to one of the policemen who told him casually that the rape was obviously the fault of the girl for being out of the house in the evening. This attitude — of first and foremost blaming the victim of the crime — incensed Ram to further explore the issue.

Priya’s Shakti is a social impact multimedia project with several parts — an augmented reality (AR) comic book, a street art component and a social media presence. It aims to create an alternative attitude towards violence against women. By partnering with NGOs who work with rape victims, the filmmakers have a long term plan to distribute millions of copies of the comic book to raise awareness.

I have been following interactive documentaries and transmedia projects for a while now, and I find it interesting how different people incorporate interactivity in their projects. Coming from a documentary filmmaking background, I used to expect projects to reflect tons of research and filmmakers’ work to be based on access to key characters and footage. But I am quickly learning that none of these are necessary. The transmedia world is large enough to incorporate different forms of storytelling.

As Ram mentions in his interview, the three holy grails of creating an interactive project are to create an app, a documentary or a website that allows considerable viewer participation. Priya’s Shakti includes none of those three.

A simple fictional comic book story is central to the project: Hindu Gods come to the rescue of Priya, a young rape victim. But the ancillary elements of this project — augmented reality, social media and on-the-street art — make it unique. Priya’s Shakti‘s multi-platform approach aims to to open the discussion on a social issue.

Page 4 of Priya's Shakti

Page 4 of the Priya’s Shakti comic book

If you are checking out the project, download the free Blippar app (for iOS and Android) on your smart phone. Then, point your phone to the select images in the comic book, and you will experience another dimension to the book. You can hear the voices of Indian women who have survived sexual assault and faced the trauma of being social outcasts. You can take your picture against the image of Priya and a tiger (a metaphor for a rape victim ready to avenge her attackers), and post it on Facebook to join the campaign, “I stand by Priya!”. If you are in Mumbai, you can check out the augmented reality enabled street art around Dharavi.

Priya's Shakti street art

Priya’s Shakti street art in Dharavi, Mumbai. Photo: Jaya Mahajan/Factual for Asia

I had a conversation with Ram in Mumbai just before the launch of the comic book to find out more about his journey in the making of Priya’s Shakti. Ram has been working as a bank technologist with Citibank for the last fifteen years, but documentaries and films are where his heart lies — and the birth of Priya’s Shakti coincided with him getting the pink slip from Citibank.

Can you take us through the journey of how you went about developing your initial idea?

Ram Devineni: I have always been interested in religious studies and in Hinduism. I went on a journey traveling across South East Asia and India, exploring different temples, and observing what different deities meant to people. I also read many Amar Chitra Kathas (an extremely popular comic book series in India with stories about Indian mythology). I just had this idea that I wanted to do a story on gender violence in India but had no idea in what form. I created a short film cut from old Bollywood films from the 1970s — basically a way to tell a story about this issue — using Indian mythological characters. So there were all these abstract thoughts in my head.

Ram Devineni

Ram Devineni. Photo: Jaya Mahajan/Factual for Asia

Why did you choose to make a comic book for this project over other media forms?

Ram Devineni: In October 2013, I got a notice from Citibank with a severance package. I decided to use the money as an initial development fund for my creative pursuits. I went with my short film for my first meet up in New York and at the very first event, I met Dan Goldman, who writes graphic novels and comics. Dan saw the cut from the 1970s films and recommended that I make this into a comic book. (Dan Goldman is the visual artist for Priya’s Shakti.)

What were the steps to get initial funding?

Ram Devineni: Well, the first funding came from the severance pay! But in March 2014, Citibank called me back again. So I went back to the bank, but on far more flexible hours. I went to DOK Leipzig and Crossover Labs, with literally just a PDF and a cover, and from there on, the project slowly took its current form. The people at Crossover Labs were full of questions and I was happy that my project was of interest to commissioners and developers from around the world. I attended most of the documentary markets in the summer of 2014 — Sheffield, Pixel Labs — and we got funding and grants from TFI New Media Fund and then many other organizations.

What was the inspiration for incorporating augmented reality?

Ram Devineni: During my travels to Italy I was impressed with the artwork and frescoes of the 16th century Sistine Chapel. I remember thinking at that time, when I was looking up at the ceiling and seeing the Last Judgment by Michelangelo, that I wish there was a way in which I could capture the scene on my cell phone and see the artwork in an enhanced manner. That was the trigger, hence in my comic book, I created scenes that use augmented reality to give another dimension to the basic artwork.

How exactly does augmented reality work?

Ram Devineni: Augmented reality is simply an alternative or unreal view of the real world created by software. I incorporated a specific QR code in many of the images that I created in my comic book and street art. This code is then scanned and put in the Blippar software, and that’s pretty much it! You can see one image with your naked eyes, but scan the same image with your phone, using the app, and you will see another dimension to the image!

And why did you choose Blippar over other AR software?

Ram Devineni: Blippar was entering India, and they had just opened their offices. They wanted to do something in the social sector, and my project fits in perfectly in their larger plans. They were perfect partners!

What kind of impact do you expect this project to make?

Ram Devineni: I am not expecting this comic book to reach out to the tens of thousands all across India who face gender-based discrimination. But, I am hoping to start a conversation, to raise awareness about an issue that is one of the biggest issues facing Indian society these days. By partnering with NGOs who work directly with rape victims, the message could spread far and wide.

Visit the Priya’s Shakti site to find out more and download the comic book for free »

Jaya Mahajan has created content for some of the biggest brands in the Asian media industry over the last 15 years. She has made compelling and award-winning documentaries and factual series for channels such as CNBC, the National Geographic channel, CNN and BBC World. Mahajan is currently an independent consultant for factual programming production companies in Asia. She is the author of Factual for Asia, a blog that shares the journeys taken by documentary filmmakers towards completing their films. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

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POV (a cinema term for "point of view") is television's longest-running showcase for independent non-fiction films. POV premieres 14-16 of the best, boldest and most innovative programs every year on PBS. Since 1988, POV has presented over 300 films to public television audiences across the country. POV films are known for their intimacy, their unforgettable storytelling and their timeliness, putting a human face on contemporary social issues.