After Devi, the feminine hell-cat (very close to Hollywood’s Catwoman); Sadhu, the warrior-turned-mystique; and, the Snake Woman, the LA version of the Bollywood staple, Nagina, played most famously by Sridevi in 1986, Virgin Comics turned to the Ramayana, about six months ago. The Ramayan Reloded series will be released in India at the end of next month.
The sneak peek of the first issue is fairly appetizing. The story is set in the future and as Sharad Devarajan, the Virgin Comics CEO, says, it is repositioned as their Lord of the Rings.
Here’s how that is being done: After an apocalyptic war, a radioactive haze surrounds the earth and humans only live at a place called Armagarh, in the Aryavarta continent, where the sun has managed to penetrate the haze. In the other parts of Aryavarta live “anthropomorphic” beings such as Vanaras and Garudas.
To the south lies the continent of Nark, a hell, as the name implies. It is ruled by Ravana, a creature spawned by the apocalypse. The plot is true to the original, except for certain twists in the traits of the characters. Lakshman for example—called Lachman, for some reason—is more outspoken and resentful of his stepmother. Kaikeyi is not demure and martyr-like, but is a councillor in the government and a racist. Devarajan informs further, “It’s also full of demons, warriors and many bizarre creatures that our guys in the studio have been able to dream up.”
All the more challenging for their creative minds, because at least two generations of Indians have absorbed the Ramayana through the mass media—be it through the ever-popular Amar Chitra Katha comics or through the TV series. Jeevan Kanga, the 26-year-old creative head of the company’s Bangalore set-up, ‘the comics lab’, is unfazed. “The challenge was to strike a chord with the western readers, because they are already fed on fantasy morality tales. Indian readers of any age are so familiar with the characters and the story, that they’ll be interested more in the packaging,” says Kanga. He has also designed The Sadhu series, which is now being made into a Hollywood blockbuster by the Virgin-Gotham enterprise, with Nicholas Cage in the lead.
The first two comics in the Ramayana series, although strikingly illustrated, have unidimensional portraits of characters. These are characters that are much more complex and layered in the original epic. Ravana, for example, is more a beast than the ten-headed humanoid form, and the numerous sub-plots and lineage threads that determine his destiny, are not even hinted at.
The specific questions that come to mind are: How would Sita be portrayed? Does this Rama have divine powers and will they be revealed? And how will the stories be radically different from Ashok Banker’s series or Ramanand Sagar’s TV version? The second part of the Ramayana series, called Ramayan 3392 AD, would have to redeem a lot of these caricatures to be able to appeal to the intelligent adult Indian reader.
Devarajan says that his preliminary research in the Indian market shows that the readers for these comics are young adults, 15 to 25 years of age, much like the readership profile in the US. “Whether we like it or not, what is cool in the West today is cool in India tomorrow, be it in film or books or music. That’s perhaps one of the reasons we’re seeing the same kind of readers as those in the US,” he says.
Unfortunately, the creators are severely underestimating young-adult or adult readers of the comic genre. Readers the world over, including India, are used to classics of the graphic novel genre and comics such as the Japanese manga, which use a highly evolved, narrative form that also draws on old Japanese stories, but are made with a narrative sophistication comparable to film. Here the themes make sense through words and actions of the characters, unlike in Ramayan Reloded, where the text often reads like treatises on Hindu philosophy and religion.