MUMBAI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Two years after unveiling a comic about a rape survivor-turned-superhero who takes on her abusers, filmmaker Ram Devineni is using a sequel to highlight the acid attacks that maim and scar hundreds of women in India every year.
"Priya's Shakti" was the first Indian comic book of its kind, using augmented reality technology to tell the story of a young rural woman who is gang-raped and consequently shamed by her family and community.
After praying to the Hindu goddess Parvati, Priya gains the strength, or "shakti", to fight sex crimes, and flies around India on a tiger, helping other victims win justice.
In the sequel, "Priya's Mirror", the superhero holds up a mirror as she convinces acid-attack survivors that there is more to them than their scars, and that they need not hide.
"Priya is a flying superhero. For survivors of rape and acid attacks, to see characters like themselves being represented in art and pop culture is pretty cool," said U.S.-based Devineni, a creator of the "Priya" series.
"It's an alternate narrative, and it's a positive message, one that we hope will help change perceptions," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The comic was inspired by Laxmi, an Indian acid-attack survivor who has since become an activist and a fashion model. It also draws on the experiences of real-life survivors from India and elsewhere, Devineni said.
"When I met some of these women, I was struck by the fact that they faced nearly the same kind of stigma and ostracism as rape survivors," said Devineni, who was visiting India to launch the book at Comic Con in Mumbai.
"There is a lot of victim blaming, and in addition to the emotional trauma, acid-attack survivors also face tremendous physical trauma because of the disfiguration," Devineni said.
Globally, as many as 1,500 acid attacks are recorded every year, with more than 1,000 cases estimated to occur in India alone. However, many attacks go unreported because victims are too afraid of reprisals from their abusers.
Most victims are women, who are blinded or disfigured by jilted partners or relatives.
Acid attacks became a specific offence in India in 2013 after the government strengthened gender violence laws following the fatal 2012 gang-rape of a young woman on a bus in New Delhi.
In a separate effort to raise awareness about the violence, another Indian acid-attack survivor walked the runway at New York Fashion Week last month to promote a ban on the sale of corrosive substances used to maim thousands of women.
"Priya's Mirror" is the second in a five-book series created by Devineni, filmmaker Paromita Vohra and artist Dan Goldman. The next comic will focus on sex trafficking, Devineni said.
He said the comic-book format and augmented reality features, including an interactive app which brings the characters alive, are key to getting the message across.
"We're dealing with very difficult topics that tend to put people off, so comic books are a more accessible way to get their attention," Devineni said.
"Plus, it's a very relevant format for the audience we're trying to reach: teenage boys. To challenge India's patriarchal setup, you have to start with teenage boys at a time when they are discovering sexuality and gender roles," he said.
(Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran, Editing by Katie Nguyen. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories.)