‘Priya’s Mask’: A Timely Tale of a Superhero Who Fights the Virus – And the Stigma

2020 is a year that will forever be etched in our memories. Children, in particular, found it difficult to understand why their lives came to a halt, why they suddenly stopped going to school, or why they couldn’t see their friends or family members as much as they used to.

Such was the case for creator Ram Devineni’s three-year-old niece.

Over the course of the lockdown, Devineni created a comic-book and a short animated movie called Priya’s Mask. The film features the voices of feminist activists and Bollywood actors such as Vidya Balan, Mrunal Thakur and Sairah Kabir and Hollywood actor Rosanna Arquette. The comic book and film were released during the ’16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence’ international campaign which took place between November 25 to December 10 with the aim of challenging violence against women and girls.

The book features superhero Priya, who prior to this was the hero of Priya’s Shakti – a 2014 graphic novel by Devineni, Dan Goldman and Lina Srivastava. In the novel, Priya is a modern-day superhero who empowers young survivors of gender-based violence, just like herself.

Similarly, Priya’s Mask narrates the tale of a young girl, Meena, whose mother is a healthcare worker. In the opening scene, she can be seen in her balcony crying and missing her friends and her mother. Priya, along with her flying tiger, Sahas console Meena and take her to see her mother, who is seen nursing a COVID-19 patient.

Upon seeing her mother, Priya tells Meena about the sacrifices her mother is making to ensure everyone’s safety. Meena then promises that she will be strong, and later organises an event with the help of her neighbours to celebrate her mother.

Domestic violence

Devineni says the relevance of this comic book/film is that Priya herself is a survivor of gender-based violence, a theme that Devineni has tackled in the previous editions too.

“Domestic violence has become a big problem during the pandemic, and has been widely talked about on online media platforms. But we decided to focus on the pandemic and its effect on children. I felt this was not being focused on, and was vital,” he says.

The main reason, he says, was to create something that resonates with both parents as well as their kids. “There was little discussion or tools for parents to talk about the virus with their children, and I felt their emotional state has not been in the focus,” he adds.

Devineni lost his doctor friends to the virus and his own father had to give up his medical practice. Through the comic, he says, he wanted to evoke the confusion that his niece experienced.

“The nucleus of the story came from my niece, who told her mother that she did not have someone to speak about her feelings to,” he says. “We also wanted to honour the healthcare workers who were risking their lives for us.”

Ode to healthworkers

Millions of healthcare workers around the world have been at the heart of this pandemic. Many have had to maintain distance from their families for long periods of time – which is also narrated in the comic book.

Dr Scott Corcoran, for instance, is a doctor based in the New York City. He works 12 hours at a time and gets to see his wife, Amy and six-year-old daughter Lucy every day. He explains that his long working hours have been hard on Lucy, much like for Meena in the book.

“But she understands the importance of my job and really does. It’s hard when I come home and can’t immediately hug my family as I have to get everything into the wash and shower.”

He explains that there have been a couple of moments when he had to physically distance and wear a mask at home.

“That’s an even bigger heartbreak,” he says. “Lucy wants to know ‘Why can’t I kiss Daddy?’ It just tears you apart as a parent. She would also ask Amy ‘When is Daddy going to get the virus and die?’”

He explains that for him and his daughter it’s been quite a tightrope to walk.

“On one side you want to make sure she knows how important it is to take safety measures because the virus is very dangerous while at the same time, you can’t have your six year old continually worrying about your safety.”

Speaking on how life has changed for him since the pandemic, Corcoran says that while he has been doing fine, it has been quite the ride.

A still from the film Priya’s Mask.

“There was a lot of fear and anxiety back in March and early April as I was working just outside of NYC during that time. I felt a bit out of control. As an ER doctor, I see crazy things every day but almost always feel in control, this was different,” he said.

Across the world, and even in Priya’s Mask, we see healthcare workers being applauded for the work they have been doing. The comic book shows Meena’s mother tears up as her neighbours break into an applause the moment she walks in.

While explaining the severity of the virus, Dr Corcoran says that it is often the same people that applaud the healthcare workers and later have gatherings at home and elsewhere.

“All the cheers in the world don’t mean anything if people aren’t adhering to epidemiological guidelines. Actions speak louder than words. Have some grace with us. This is exhausting for us. We are doing our best,” he says.

The comic book also emphasises on the importance of wearing a mask, which Dr Corcoran seconds: “Wear a mask. It’s not a big deal and really protects so many around you.”

Governments across the world have enforced various safety measures. Many celebrities and influencers have also used their platform to push this message further. Devineni explains how the use of art in the comic book has addressed this too. “What is extraordinary is that very little artwork has been created about the pandemic while it’s happening.”

He adds that the comic is also a historical and creative document which touches upon everything that the pandemic has witnessed thus far, from the plight of migrant workers to virus infecting across the borders and even environmental issues.

“I researched what was written during the Spanish Flu pandemic, and could find very little. Even though it killed millions of people and even probably contributed to World War II, there is very little work about it.”

The burqa avenger

Priya’s Mask features Pakistani superhero, Jiya, who is also known as the Burqa Avenger. The two superheroes join forces to fight off Baba Kaboom who wants to use the virus to control the city.

In bringing the two superheroes together, Devineni explains that it shows the virus does not see the borders. It can only be defeated through cooperation and understanding between cultures and people.

“There was a lot of misinformation in India disseminated online in the beginning of the pandemic blaming different ethnic and religious groups for the pandemic.”

He felt it was important to dispel them, because the misinformation and fear around the virus could possibly lead to something more dangerous than the virus.

“What people will remember about the virus a decade from now is how quickly it spread and the fact it easily infects someone from India with the same effect as someone from Pakistan. The virus simply does not care.”

Devineni says while the pandemic has brought about a lot of bad things, there have been a lot of remarkable gestures and people who stood out. He links this to the superhero, Priya.

“Priya is a survivor of gender-based violence. She is not a victim. The big question for all of us is will we perceive ourselves as survivors or victims of the pandemic? Will the virus control us, or will we control the virus? This will affect the repercussion of the pandemic for many years to come.”

Meera Pattni is a journalist based in Kenya.