Behens, Bahus, and Badasses

Social Commentary

Behens, Bahus, and Badasses

Illustration: Saachi Mehta/ Arré

W hen we argue online,
Over gender issues,
Who we gonna call?

I’m not trying to sound like the Indian Weird Al (would that be Baba Sehgal?). I’m just reflecting on the storm that kicked up when the cast for the Ghostbusters reboot was announced. This time, the team of paranormal exterminators was made up of four women instead of four men. Purists found the decision akin to heresy, while those who had been bemoaning the lack of representation of women on film thought it was a breath of fresh air.

I think the furore over the new Ghostbusters (Ghostbusteresses?) was quite vapid and unnecessary. When the film merely recycles concepts and ideas, what difference does the characters’ gender make?

Hell, even in the early 1990s, when a franchise as cheesy as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was growing stale, the producers of the cartoon shoehorned in Venus, a new, female Ninja Turtle that was as accomplished as any of the original lean, green, fighting machines. Marvel did the same recently. Tony Stark (a.k.a. Robert Downey Jr.’s retirement fund) was also killed off in the comics and the new Iron Man was an African-American teenage girl. Whether it’s Ghostbusteresses or Ironman (can we still call her that?) the fact remains that this re-gendering of superheroes is no more than sorry lip-service. The heroines in tights – swinging suspiciously Freudian hammers in the case of the female Thor – are mouthing the same “save the world” nonsense that men did before them.

If I were the type to puff my chest out about things I had no hand in accomplishing, this is where I’d proudly point out that in India, we’ve dealt with this problem far more responsibly.

The year 2012 was a dark one for women’s rights in India. The Delhi gang-rape case laid bare the system’s apathy toward women who face brutal violence, and showcased a gallery of horrifying attitudes towards women. Priya’s Shakti was a graphic novel born as a direct response to the case.

At Tinkle, WingStar breaks the norms; she’s a school-going girl from a small town, yet is still boldly confident and has a identity that is sharply carved out and entirely her own.

“I was involved in the 2012 protests that followed the case,” says Ram Devineni, one of the co-creators of Priya’s Shakti. “There was an enormous outcry from young adults and teenagers. I knew than that the problem of sexual violence in India was not a legal issue; it was a cultural problem. A cultural shift had to happen.”

The shift however, didn’t happen overnight. In July 2006, a company known as Virgin Comics launched Devi, a warrior goddess sent to earth to battle a demon god. At times both epic and gritty, Devi has all the tropes of a dark graphic novel.

Even 10 years later, Devi is an ongoing series. Samit Basu, one of the first Indian writers to experiment with epic fantasy (I mean after Valmiki and Ved Vyas thousands of years earlier), was Devi’s author for a large part and the creator of the first story arc. “The idea behind Devi was very simple,” says Basu, “A kickass Indian warrior-goddess with her own contemporary mythology, part of a long tradition of such saviour figures.”

Devi broke comic-book clichés, where the heroines are aesthetic additions tacked on to the plot. Basu was sure of his aim: To make this comic more than the “absurdly-hot-scantily-clad-women-fight” trap that most comics in this genre fall into. Giving Tara (the woman who becomes Devi) a 3D personality, a sense of strength and purpose, and an actual opinion was the key issue.

“She doesn’t just happily become a warrior goddess and take on a thousand responsibilities,” Basu says. “She’s very angry because no one asked her whether she wanted to do all this or not and goes completely off the map that people had drawn out for her. The end frame of Devi 5, where she’s carrying her love interest out of a temple she’s ruined, is one I’m particularly proud of,” he adds.

In November last year, Tinkle, one of the country’s longest-running comic magazines, unveiled the latest addition to their superhero roster: WingStar. Believe it or not, under the mask is a 13-year-old schoolgirl from Mizoram called Mapui. At Tinkle, WingStar breaks the norms; she’s a school-going girl from a small town, yet is still boldly confident and has a identity that is sharply carved out and entirely her own.

Maybe India’s pulled off the desi-superheroine better than these watered-down western versions because we have such a culture of oppression. The way sexual violence affects us and the way the state responds to it, demands a strong female ideal. I’m pretty certain that we will soon see four Indian machete-wielding girls riding around on Harleys and chasing sex offenders. The RapeBusters will find their personal cheering squad in have women across the length and breadth of the country, irrespective of language, caste, and age. The impact of these comics might be intangible, but the change that they are agents of, is inevitable.

The creators of all desi superheroines, be it Mapui or Devi, is that women don’t need to be saved by men. They’re saving themselves pretty damn well and they aren’t just behens and bahus. They’re badasses.