It's not hard to reason this one but you migh...
First off, tell us a little bit about both your backgrounds.
I’m Rajesh Devraj, a writer who’s worked in advertising, television and film. I’ve worked in agencies, and at Channel [V] and Sony as a creative director; I’ve made ad films; and I’ve also written movie scripts, from Quick Gun Murugun to the recent animation flick Arjun: The Warrior Prince. Before working on this graphic novel, I researched and wrote a design history of Indian movie posters, The Art of Bollywood (Taschen, 2010)
Where did the inspiration to use anthropomorphism in your first tryst with comics come from?
When I was working at Channel [V], I’d met the director Nanabhai Bhatt, who had directed a movie featuring Pedro the Human Chimpanzee in the fifties. The memory of that encounter stayed with me, and years later, became the inspiration for Sudershan (Chimpanzee). Why did I choose to tell a story through animal characters? Well, initially when I thought of the idea, I wrote a couple of scenes, including the opening page of the book which talks about the animal stars of the past. I sensed something lurking behind those scenes, a blend of humour and pathos I was tempted to explore. With animal characters, I could strike all these different notes – write scenes that could be moving and melancholy, but also really absurd. I also liked the thought of creating a shadow Bollywood with its own made-up history of animal stars and B-movie moguls.
It's a fairly dark tale. Do you feel telling the story through the eyes of a more unbelievable character--a chimpanzee in this case--softens the harsh reality of the underbelly it exposes a bit?
You could see it that way I suppose, and it wouldn’t be untrue. There’s definitely a tradition to using animal characters in this fashion, especially in graphic novels such as Art Spiegelman’s Maus. However, the intent is not to soften an unpalatable truth, but to provide some distance and perspective.
In my case, I didn’t begin with the harsh reality. I had the character and the fantastical setting, and as I explored both, I found myself drawn to the story’s darker aspects. The relationships became more sordid and exploitative than they were in the original conception. The story grew more twisted and dramatic, and I was fine with that, because the last thing I wanted was for the book to end up as some exercise in twee whimsy. I think I was also responding to the beautiful distortion I saw in Meren’s drawings, this almost Cubist manner in which he sometimes deconstructs faces. There are things I wrote just to see how he would draw them.
Why did you opt to tell this story in comic form rather than a more standard, textual narrative?
I don’t know if I am capable of writing a more standard, textual narrative. Everything I’ve ever written, from my movie scripts to my previous book, has involved images in one way or the other. More than words, I enjoy creating images, collaborating with others to tell stories through images. The notion of telling Sudershan’s story only through words never occurred to me.
Meren, your usual illustrative style appears to be a fair bit different from what we see in Sudershan. Did you feel the story demanded a darker look? Do you feel such a strong illustrative stance was necessary to add more depth to the comic?
Actually, I had done a series of explorations, which turned out to be a little too cartoony in style. It wasn’t appropriate for the story so I worked out a rougher, sketchier look. Initially we did a six-page preview for Man’s World magazine. Then later we did the book, where the story evolved into a larger canvas. Given the experiences Sudershan went through, it definitely required a darker look.
Meren, you'd mentioned at Mumbai's Comic Con that you grew up on the periphery of Bollywood and Mumbai. How then did you manage to capture the essence of both so effortlessly in the novel?
Since I wasn’t familar with Bollywood history, I looked at quite a few references. I also used some picture references from the net to get an idea of the period setting. Then for the circus sequences, the inspiration was Mary Ellen Mark's photographs which really depicted the mood and the setting we were looking for. Regarding Mumbai - having lived in Mumbai for many years now, I could draw on my recollections to depict areas like Mahim, Dharavi, the chawls and the Irani cafes shown in the book.
How closely do a writer and illustrator have to work to create a book like this? Give us some insight into your professional dynamic.When I first saw Meren’s work, it seemed lighter in tone compared to what I had in mind. But after some initial explorations, he turned in drawings that captured the dark humour and pathos of the story perfectly. I could see that he had a fair bit of intuition and an empathy for the character, so it didn’t really matter to me that he didn’t know much about the setting. I wrote down a fairly detailed script, put together a bunch of references, and let him do the rest. In the end it’s a collaboration – what I’ve written is very much inspired by his drawing style, and what he’s drawn is shaped by my words.
What according to both of you, was the most challenging part of this entire comic-creating process?
It takes a long time to create a book, and the challenge is to stay focussed and motivated through the process. You have to be patient, very patient.
What do you think the potential is for a graphic novel of this variety in the Indian markets?
I don’t know the sales figures on this category, or if there is much of a market. My book is not the typical comic book, or even the typical literary graphic novel, for that matter. So I can’t really say how it will be received.
Upon reading, it struck me that the bilingual text was a bit of a risk as it threatens to cut down your reader base. Did you feel it was essential to have your characters speak both Hindi and English?
Quite essential. I’ve met and interviewed many filmi types over the years, and I think I have a decent ear for their lingo – the cliches, the put-downs, the street wisdom, the self-serving chatter. You can’t capture the flavour if you use English alone. And anyway, isn’t it natural that characters from the Hindi movie industry should speak in Hindi once in a while?
Besides, if you pick up the Indian edition of a book based in Bollywood, it’s quite likely that you understand a bit of Hindi and won’t have any problems picking up the humour. I’m aware that in a lot of literary fiction, one doesn’t usually mix up languages to the extent I have in my book. But why should that be seen as a risk?On radio, in TV and film, people use both languages all the time, and no one minds at all. It isn’t seen as cutting down the audience base, quite the contrary.
Thus far, what kind of feedback have you been receiving? Any word from people within the same film industry you've so cleverly paralleled?
The book isn’t out in stores as yet, so I’ve had limited feedback. Mostly people who found the book at Comic Con, people who’re really into comics and b-movies, and have therefore enjoyed the book . Will have to wait a while for the general feedback.
And finally, what does the future have in store for this dynamic duo?
I would love to do more in this medium, and gladly work with Meren again. Though the idea I’m toying with right now is an anthology of sorts, which would require collaborating with not one, but many different artists.
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