Vikram Balagopal says his dynamic reimagining of the Mahabharata and Ramayana as a graphic novel, Simian is a product of the questions that cropped up in his multiple readings

Vikram Balagopal has reimagined the epics as a kinetic graphic novel, Simian (Harper Collins, Rs. 750).

The 30-year-old filmmaker, artist and poet studied in the New York Film Academy and had his script selected for Mira Nair’s Screenwriter lab. Vikram, who is at present based in Delhi but visits Bangalore often, talks about the book. Excerpts.

Can you tell us about the title?

I got the name Simian early in the development of the story. As soon as I got it, everything seemed to fall into place in terms of how I would approach the story.

Could you tell us about the genesis of the book?

I’ve been fascinated with the story of Bali, and the wider story of the Ramayana, since I was very young. Later, into my teens, I explored these stories in greater detail and found myself unable to justify some actions and attitudes. Simian is a product of that questioning.

How reliable is the internet for research?

The internet is as reliable or unreliable as any source out there. It’s all collected by humans so they will either be outdated or lacking in evidence or plain wrong. My research wasn’t about getting the facts right or collecting versions of the Ramayana to build my story.

My intention with Simian was never to do a scholarly work on the Ramayana or something new for the sake of it. I already had my story when I began my research, and its sole purpose was to understand the facts of the story as best I could.

In your introduction you have said Mahabharata and Ramayana should not be clubbed with Greek and Norse myth. Can you elaborate?

It is the distinction between a religion that is still practiced and one that is not. The Greek, Norse, Babylonian and Roman myths exist as they did till the moment their religions died out. The Mahabharata and the Ramayana were in one state 2500 years ago, in another 2000 years ago, and in yet another a 1000 years ago. They have changed with the society they were integrated with, evolved as the society and religion evolved, in relation to each other.

Why have you started with Bheema’s meeting with Hanuman?

I started with Bheema meeting Hanuman because it is only when Hanuman hears about the feud between the Kauravas and the Pandavas and the possibility of war that he decides to tell Bheema the Ramayana from his point of view; to explore the consequences of war.

Can you comment on the word Aam which you have said is yes in vanar language?

I made that up. I was trying to represent the Vanars as an ancient race, with some of that antiquity coming through in their language, especially with the most positive word, yes, being the same word for fruit. It turned out that aam means yes in Sanskrit and Tamil as well.

Hanuman tells the Ramayan backwards starting with the aged king Rama full of regrets. Comment.

I felt that was the best way to tell the story, to show Ram as we’ve never seen him, and see how he got there.

Why doesn’t Ravan have 10 heads?

As much as I’ve always loved the idea and what it represents, it was against my aesthetic sensibilities and unsuitable for my story to depict him that way.

Why did you choose to tell the story in black and white?

I felt it had less distractions and suited the subject matter and tone far better than vibrant colours. I wanted it to reflect the shades of white, the greys and the darkest blacks of every character. I selectively used colour to depict divine beings to represent a hyperrealism beyond the ordinary.

Why are the Vanars depicted as baboons?

I’ve modelled my depiction of the Vanars based on the Gelada Baboon (Theropithecus). In fact, the Gelada are not true baboons, but the last of their genus. They are found only in a small area in the Hills of Ethiopia. When it came time to designing the Vanar look, my first choice was always the Gelada, but I worried about how it made sense to have an African monkey in India. Back in 2008/2009 when I researched them there wasn’t much to support my choice except for the mysterious fact that they had found fossil evidence of Theropithecus in India, in Mirzapur. I also loved the coincidence that the hill range in Ethiopia the Gelada baboon roam is called the Simien Hills. In 2013, as editing was beginning on the book I saw a BBC story where scientists believed the Gelada baboon has the widest range of vocalisations next to humans. They equated it to a form of speech. And in April this year, two months before the book launch, there was another news story, that during an excavation at the Billasurgam caves in Andhra Pradesh, another Theropithecus fossil fragment was found. But truth be told, if I had felt I couldn’t have used the Gelada baboon to depict Vanars I probably wouldn’t have done the book.

Why is the action skewed in some panels and pages?

To represent the chaos of combat, when the whole world somersaults about you with every tussle and your head spins with the adrenalin.

What is the significance of the throne of blood in the front piece?

It is a metaphoric representation with clues in the books. But I’d prefer to leave the final interpretation to the reader.

How much did cinema influence your art?

My love for cinema has had a huge influence on my art. From the way I’ve approached the story to how I’ve drawn every scene. I’ve been studying cinema since I was 12, so that understanding is a vital part of anything I create.

The battle with the squid Sinhika looks like storyboard for an action/adventure. Was it by design or happened organically?

It happened organically. From the moment I had written the scene I knew this was how it had to be depicted. I’ve always been haunted by squids and cephalopods with their gripping tentacles and glaring giant eyes.

Splitting a trilogy in two is unusual…

That wasn’t my decision because I’ve treated each part as a separate book. I completed the first part in January of 2011 so there is a part of me that would have loved to have seen it come out then. I have no qualms at this point about having the first two parts in a single book because it is what it is.