India’s newest superhero is RashtraMan.
He wears a saffron cloak, charges for free speech and patrols the streets of Rashtrapolis seeking out ‘anti-nationals’. He even drinks green tea to arrest the free radicals in his body.
RashtraMan was created by 37-year-old graphic novelist George Mathen aka Appupen four months ago. “In one of his speeches, Babasaheb Ambedkar talks about how Indians have an affinity for hero-worship and warns against giving too much power to one person,” says Mathen. The web comic is his satirical take on that kind of superhero – a figment of popular imagination that suddenly acquires form, and power.
Across the country, people like Mathen are combining easy-to-use web platforms with a quirky sense of humour to explore social and political absurdities of their times. Their main objective, they say, is to create political commentary that can act as an alternative to right-wing shrillness. Their key demographic, the growing number of young, urban web-surfers looking for opinion or analysis in bite-sized, entertaining doses.
In Delhi, then, illustrator Gopal Kumar aka Shoonya, 30, posts Hindi cartoons against communalism and saffronisation on his Facebook page.
In Hyderabad, journalist Swathi Vadlamudi, 39, has shot into the limelight after her cartoon showcasing the absurdity of the ‘soldiers are dying’ rhetoric became an online hit.
And a Twitter account called History Revisits, set up earlier this month by three youngsters from Delhi and Mumbai (who wish to remain anonymous), bring present day contexts to archival photos through hilarious fake captions.
“When writing fails as a medium for healthy debate and all your sensible arguments boomerang after hitting an impenetrable wall of ignorance and bigotry, you’re left with lampooning as your only tool. It never misses its target,” says Vadlamudi, a reporter with The Hindu.
Or, as stand-up comedian and film writer Varun Grover put it: “A key purpose of comedy is to keep dialogue going, to get through to the people who have been coerced into thinking that the government is always right.”
Making a point
Here’s how they do it. The History Revisits account recently tweeted a picture of Narendra Modi being measured against a wax imitation of his eyeball, by personnel from Madame Tussaud’s. It was captioned: ‘India’s intelligence agency RAW changing the focus lens of its high-tech Camera Detection Robot’. “Everything can be related to history, especially in the current scheme of things,” says one of the founders.
“We are so touchy these days, that there is a need for good satire that is clever and smart and witty about all that’s going on,” adds historian Ramachandra Guha, who is a fan of the parody account and has allowed the creators to add a cheekily tagline that all their ‘historical perspective’ has his approval.
One of Shoonya’s works shows a weatherman discussing the likelihood of riots as beef steak clouds hover over parts of the country.
“My aim is to reach the common man,” he says. “A cartoon is a simple format, and in Hindi it can reach more people.”
Vadlamudi opted for a rough cartoon over an essay (on the ‘soldiers are dying’ rhetoric) for the same reason. “It is a tool that can express my opinion in a few simple strokes,” she says.
The trend can be traced back a year, to when satirical works such as Adarsh Balak, Inedible India and Royal Existentials first emerged. Adarsh Balak was a series of illustrations and comics by Mumbai artist Priyesh Trivedi that parodied textbook versions of the ideal boy; Inedible India uses Raja Ravi Varma and Mughal-era paintings to create web comics that comment on issues of the day; and Royal Existentials does the same with vintage Indian art and imagery.
Now, professionals are getting in on the action too. The entertainment website Arré last month created a JNUSTICELEAGUE with characters that include Saffron Lantern, who hunts sickulars, BatmanLLB whose motto is ‘Down with justice’ and Jhanda Woman, whose tagline reads ‘Kya bahu bhi kabhi student thi’.
The posters are broadcast online under the hashtag #DisArré. Another recent upload featured a poster for the National School of Drama with PM Narendra Modi, HRD minister Smriti Irani and Congress party VP Rahul Gandhi listed as school toppers.
“We believe that anything contextual can be turned into a powerful, informative and entertaining tool for the youth. And we have no leanings,” says co-founder Sai Kumar.
For the audience, the levity offers a welcome break from the two extremes of vitriol and doomsday scenarios.
“Nowadays people get up in arms even about jokes,” says Roshni Devi, 27, a financial journalist and a fan of the History Revisits Twitter account. “These guys are making fun of current affairs using a smart play on words, so you can’t really be offended, and it’s fun to follow.”
“In increasingly shrill times when disagreement is taken as disloyalty, humour is a way of making one’s voice heard in a way that appeals to a large audience and makes the message both more powerful and more palatable,” says political analyst Surendra Jondhale. “Cartoons have always been a powerful political tool and it’s good to see a new generation using them.”