Priya’s Mask: First Female Superhero Of India Tackles COVID-19

Priya’s Mask is the story of the first Indian female superhero Priya and her faithful flying tiger, Sahas, as they find themselves amid the ongoing crisis of COVID-19 and try to deal with it. This comic book is the latest edition of the Augmented Reality-enabled comic book series featuring the teenage, female superhero.

For the first time, it is accompanied by an animated short film. Voiced by actors from India and the US (Mrunal Thakur as Priya, Vidya Balan and Rosanna Arquette as Sahas and Sairah Kabir as eight-year-old Meena), the film visually narrates a segment from the comic. Set against the city of Jodhpur, Priya befriends Meena to show her how indispensable frontline workers are and instills a sense of hope and courage in her.

The series began with Priya’s Shakti (2014) after the gang rape of a young woman on a bus in New Delhi in 2012. This was followed by Priya’s Mirror, where Priya joined forces with a group of acid attack survivors; and Priya and the Lost Girls (2019), where she tackled sex trafficking. The books were illustrated and animated by Syd Fini, Hamid Bahrami and Neda Kazemifar.

Ever since her inception, Priya has come a long way. The character was named Gender Equality Champion by UN Women. “Priya, as a character, has evolved since 2014. Initially it was based on Hindu mythology, but now it’s much more universal in the storytelling. But the principle idea of Priya conquering fear remains a critical part of the storyline,” says Ram Devineni, creator of the character, a documentary filmmaker and technologist based in New York.

Priya’s Mask is meant for a younger audience, unlike previous editions. This led to the “softening” of Priya, as a character, Ram adds. Her superpower — the power of persuasion — however, still remains intact.

There is an evident “style-shift” with this chapter. “Priya is responding to children and how they cope (with the pandemic),” says Shubhra Prakash, the writer, adding that children get affected the most by a crisis of this scale. “They are left to make sense of a changing world, all of a sudden. That’s when Priya comes in,” she says.

A lot of the time, parents struggle to justify decisions to not let them meet their friends or play outdoors. Such demands often leave children confused which is what Priya tries to tackle. Actor Mrunal Thakur of Super 30 fame, who voiced Priya in the film, says, “People are talking about the economy, GDP, laws… but are we even considering children and their mental health? At such a young age, they are experiencing fear and ‘the mask culture’, doing virtual school and not stepping out to play.”

Explaining the pandemic to children is a challenge in itself. Shubhra says, “As adults, we know that we also experienced good things: like clean air, revitalised Nature. It can get complicated while talking about it to a child. So we tried to counter that by showing Sahas and her family in the forest or the birds coming to the city.” Giving voices to other beings also helps foster empathy towards them, says the writer.

Ram says that a pointed effort was made to debunk the stigma that is associated with the pandemic. “All this misinformation, especially propagated through social media: things like ‘only people from disadvantaged sections get the virus’, was something we wanted to get at. The fear of the virus is as dangerous as the virus itself,” he says.