When Bheem, the strongest of the Pandavas, battles the eldest Kaurava, Duryodhan, in the Mahabharata, he is able to best his opponent only with some advice from Krishna. The twist in the tale, however, appears when a battle-weary Krishna ends up in the hospital.
While the Mahabharata has been retold and rewritten an uncountable number of times, Paperqube’s Epic Fail, a webcomic created by Pradeep Yadav and Vijayendra Mohanty, is retelling the Indian epic with a twist. Released on Facebook bi-monthly, the graphic series attempts to show that the Mahabharata and Ramayana are not conservative stories, but a series of humorous plots involving brothers, parents, and wives.
In Epic Fail’s second comic, Hanuman is seen flying across the Indian Ocean on a mission to rescue Sita from the clutches of the 10-headed Ravana. Though he has never met her, the monkey-god manages to locate Sita—or at least he believes so. Bowing before her, Hanuman offers the lady her husband Ram’s ring so she may understand his intentions. And now comes the twist. Ravana, the king, walks in just as Hanuman is on his knees, offering the ring. Only then does Ram’s messenger realise that the lady he has bowed before is Ravana’s wife Mandodari and not Sita—and his posture may have landed him in an unintentionally embarrassing situation.
In India, where the epics hold religious and philosophical significance for a vast number of Hindus, any attempted irreverence towards its characters is contentious. Drawn in a style borrowed heavily from the immensely popular Amar Chitra Katha series, Epic Fail’s interpretative comics appear to be something of an acquired taste online.
The page has carried 11 comic strips since its launch on Sept. 30 and some part of its popularity has to do with Mohanty’s witty responses to online critics who claim Paperqube hurts religious sentiments.
“I want to let readers know that Indian culture is not as conservative as they might think,” said Paperqube’s graphic artist Pradeep Yadav. “Ours was always a country of free-thinkers and open-minded people and it will always be.”
The two-man creative team includes Yadav and Mohanty, who is head of story at Culture Machine, a digital entertainment company.
“Pradeep wanted to blow some creative steam off,” said 33-year-old Mohanty, describing the birth of Paperqube. “He asked me to join him and help make some fun comics.”
Neither takes the content too seriously, Mohanty said, and readers should be warned not to as well.
“At a very basic level, we are just being silly,” he said. “It seems appropriate too, because far too many people are taking themselves far too seriously. It has become an epidemic of sorts. The closest creative project to what we are trying to do might be the Fry and Laurie sketches of the early 1990s.”
Mohanty believes the role of art is to shake society out of complacency, preserve the past and shape its future. This is why a lot of the comments on the page make him sad.
“But then we stop being sad and respond with silliness,” he said.
This is not Mohanty’s first attempt at a mythology-based project. Epified, an online video channel that brings mythology, history, and culture to life, has close to 73,000 followers on YouTube.
“I am always blown away by the amount of creative freedom that India has allowed people to have since really ancient times,” he said. “Epic literature has been told and retold and remixed by authors in every age. This is why, when we hear things like ‘you can’t mess with the originals,’ we can’t help but feel that these people are following a different religion altogether. This is not Hinduism. In fact, it might be safe to say that they are offending my religious sentiments.”
Another thing the duo is surprised by is the brazen sense of entitlement on their comments page. Readers, Mohanty said, think they can appear on the page and demand that the creators delete things that offend them, things that Yadav and Mohanty have spent time and effort creating.
“It is a bit like us walking into somebody’s house and demanding that they abandon their children because we find them ugly,” said Mohanty. “Or that they demolish their house because we find it aesthetically inadequate.”
Yadav said he never expected the responses to Paperqube to be so harsh. “After getting so much hate mail, I did get a little scared, but I am grateful to people who supported us and especially to Vijayendra, who handled it smoothly and with a cool mind,” the 30-year-old said.
Here is Paperqube’s latest webcomic, fresh from Yadav’s desk.