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In one of the episodes of The Big Bang Theory, the sitcom based on the lives of four nerds and their attractive blonde neighbour, one character confronts the other.


“Well, then why are you going?”


This is Penny, the neighbour, directing the question at her nerd boyfriend, Leonard, and his nerdier roommate Sheldon. It hasn’t been long since the duo returned from San Diego Comic-Con, a comic book convention, as old and big as it can get. Yet, they now want to attend the upcoming one at Bakersfield.


Sheldon looks puzzled. “It’s a comic book convention,” he says, turning away from steaming a uniform worn by a character in the science-fiction TV series Star Trek. “You know, it’s like pizza or particle accelerators. Even the stinky ones are pretty good.”


While I doubt he meant that in an olfactory sense, the Mumbai Comic-Con has come a long way from the days it shared the floor space with a pickle exhibition. But gone are the days when the response was tepid. This time, the annual affair had relocated itself to one of the sprawling halls of Bombay Exhibition Centre in the western suburbs. It was perhaps a bid to tailor itself to the land that innovated ‘Chinese bhel that the convention renamed itself ‘Mumbai Film and Comic Con’ the previous year. From the morning of December 21, the halls were packed with thousands, mostly adolescents and older.


The Mumbai Comic-Con looked like it was a theme party organized by Jay Gatsby than the annual day of the socially dyslexic fanboys. Once inside, you saw more than a hundred stalls, stocked to the brim with t-shirts and books and merchandise. At one stall was an artist with face-paint cans offering Heath Ledger’s immortal character Joker’s make-up to anybody up for it. At the centre was a large dais for book releases and interactive sessions. Under the same roof, you could pull a fast one on Suppandi and have Wolverine offer you a hug at your own peril. The crowd quickly made its priorities clear – getting photographed, cooing at the costumes and buying everything from coasters to posters.


Not that it mattered if or not you are a comic book geek as long as you had enough dough to purchase a Guy Fawkes mask. Or, to quote a youngster from this year’s convention, “Guy who?”


***


The roots of Comic-Con can be traced to the city of San Diego in United States in the year 1970. Sheldon Dorf, a comic-strip letterer and artist, decided that there needs to be a platform for the comic book enthusiasts and creators to meet. What began as a dry run soon exploded into a major cultural phenomenon filled with panel discussions, seminars and a forum for emerging artists to land work with publishing houses. A few years later, one of the highlights would be ‘Cosplay’, a costume-play contest where the participants dress up as their favourite comic book characters.


As was waiting to happen, entrepreneurs and Hollywood spotted the ‘Con’ and flooded the event with merchandise and exclusive movie trailer releases, thus making it more about pop culture than comics. As TV producer John Schnepp in the documentary ‘Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope’ describes it, “That’s what it is now – the people who have never read a comic book and people who have never left their mom’s basement, like, mixed together.”


Schnepp might have resorted to stereotypes while describing comic enthusiasts, but across the Atlantic, they didn’t hold up. There are quite a few reasons why.


The Indian comic industry has always been viewed as juvenile, meant for those looking for lowbrow entertainment. Even as writers in the US kept churning out one escapist entertainer after the other that were lapped up by the urban crowd across the world, few Indian superheroes found takers in the market here. Even as the Indian superheroes began to die a slow death, failing to keep up with the youth, the comic fans were keeping pace with the older and the upcoming superheroes. None of those turned up for Cosplay resembled Nagraj, Doga or, for that matter, Shaktiman. The lone presence noticeable in a crowd consisting of characters from DC and Marvel comics, manga and various video games was Chacha Chowdhary; him and, for some reason, Adolf Hitler.


A Comic-Con-attending comic book fan from India, it seems, is none of the unshaven, unkempt templates you find in pop culture. His acquaintance comes from his English language education, a ready access to the broadband since an early age. To him, there is a right answer to “What is your favourite comic” and Archie is not it. Increasingly, the fan is an artist, often with ambitions that surpass trivialities as age.


“I want to open a Manga university in India,” said Amoya Chowdhary, a 15-year-old from a Kandivali-based junior college. I had found Amoya huddled in a corner giving finishing touches to an anime character in his sketch book, often interrupted by people wishing to know if he would be willing to sell his drawings. He carried his portfolio with him with hopes to land work and had just returned from a satisfying meeting with a comic artist at one of the stalls.


“Comic-Con is an area where people respect your art. I met an artist yesterday who saw my work, called me in and gave me a couple of books to practice,” said Amoya. Impressed by his sketches, the artist offered to collaborate with him, after which he casually asked him his age.


“I told him I’m 15. He asked me to wait for a couple of years. That’s how it is in India,” he added with a smirk.


***


An evil politician. A green ‘Poo-ranium 3000’ serum. A conspiracy to turn Mumbai into ‘Zombai’. Enter Angry Maushi, a maid with superpowers with a mission to save the city from evil-doers, and cobble errant rickshaw-drivers while at it.


‘Angry Maushi’, a brainchild of former Tinkle illustrator Abhijeet Kini, might have as well been India’s answer to The Incredible Hulk but it marks a significant departure from the domain that was largely restricted to mythology. For a market that was mostly used for reinforcing moral values through characters from scriptures, the upcoming breed comes as a refreshing change. Similarly using the escapist trope is Munkeeman, yet another superhero created by a lab accident, with powers of chimpanzee and humans. Continuing the lineage of unabashedly campy capers are ‘Vidhwa Ma Andhi Behen’ as they bring back the 90s, save a movie set from A K Hangal’s ghost and investigate why transmission was interrupted in their popcorn hour.


Through imitation or adaptation, the first step taken by several upcoming artists is to break the shackles of age-old perceptions. While most of them have an online presence, Comic-Con is often the only platform to connect with their audience in real time. With increasing number of such conventions held across India – New Delhi and Bangalore being some of them – the artists often book stalls at multiple venues across the year to establish themselves. However, the journey starts from the ABCs of comics, as it did with the four-book old Chaitanya Modak, a graphic designer from Mumbai.


“In the session I held on Saturday, I explained to the audience what comics can actually do,” said Modak, who calls his works ‘Bande dessinĂ©e’, a French term meaning ‘drawn strips’ in a bid to steer clear of Indian perception of comics. “With most of the publishers, the only comics you have are for kids or you have superheroes. Between them, there is a huge gap that needs to be filled in. What we are doing is [exploring] how to tell tales using the medium,” he said. With several splash pages and bold illustrations, Modak aims to promote non-conformist content through his works.


A similar attempt is made by Manta Ray Comics that decided to break free of the standard panels and dialogue-box clutter and came up with ‘Matchbox Comix’. Each of these works comes in a tiny box that looks exactly like a matchbox. Inside lies a folded strip of delightful tales, like the love-story between Cement Boy and Quicksand Girl or another about the flight of a dandelion. Though the response has been encouraging, one of the common complaints is that the convention is less comic, more merchandise. As Modak puts it, “They are here for shopping, yaar.”


The comics fall in the bracket of Rs. 50 to Rs. 500. The merchandise, however, can go upwards of five figures and yet find takers, said Sarthak Gupta, chief of technical and sales at Collectors’ Heritage, one of the stalls at the convention.


“It’s not surprising for us. The comic book culture was flourishing between 1995 to 2000. After the advent of internet, people started reading online. After Comic-Con came to India, people who were on internet earlier, exposed to Western comics, are now ones with spending power and can afford things like Lord of the Ring swords,” said Gupta.


The fan base, Gupta adds, is mostly fixated with the popular culture imported from the west. “As for the upcoming [Indian] publishers, they still need to grow in the market,” he said.


With a footfall of over 35,000, as the PR handout claims, the Comic-Con continues to be a wild card in India’s culturescape. Whether or not it becomes a pilgrimage for the soda bottle generation or just another Facebook check-in, only sequels will tell.




An edited version of this article was published in Mumbai Mirror on November 14, 2014. Read the article here.




Bhojpur Kothi, the residence of the royal family of Dumraon, is spread over 76 acres in the outskirts of the town




In the first week of October, 24-year-old Shivang Vijay Singh had an unusual visitor at his house. 25-year-old Shailender introduced himself as a native of one of the neighbouring villages of Buxar district. He had travelled that afternoon to Dumraon only to meet the prince of the royal family. 


“Sir, I have read about you in the book,” he said.


Ever since the release of Half Girlfriend, Chetan Bhagat’s latest ‘blockbuster novel’, Shivang has had to get used to such misconceptions. He played along: “Achcha?


“Is it true?” Shailender persisted.


“You tell me,” the yuvraj shrugged. “Do you see the house broken from anywhere?”


The two were at ‘Bhojpur Kothi’, a sprawling estate in the outskirts of the town, about 120 km away from the state capital Patna. Lush farms, home to everything from mustard and mangoes to poultry and prawns, extend all the way to the horizons of the 76 acre property the Dumraon royal family has been living in for the past five generations. As goes the oft-quoted legend, the mansion had belonged to an indigo planter in the 19th century. When he couldn’t afford the upkeep of his house, those high up the Singh family tree wrangled the sweetest property deal by purchasing it for Rs. 5. Ever since, the zamindars have been living in without once the fear of the ceiling crashing in.


Evidently, Shailendra had his answer. “Did he come to Dumraon?” he asked next, referring to Bhagat.


Shivang recalled his answer a month later when he and I were sitting in his office, next door to the living quarters. “I said to him, ‘No’. He didn’t take our permission to write about us either.”


“What did he say to that?” I ask.


“He took a selfie with me.”



Courtesy: Mumtaz Ansari

 A month after the novel released, locals of Dumraon burnt the author's effigies protesting against their offensive portrayal

 

In his latest offering, the cornfest is about a Bihari guy falling in love with a high-society girl from Delhi. He then chases her halfway across the globe to consummate his half-girlfriendship. Our hero Madhav Jha is cash-poor. In the pre-mutual funds era, his ancestors had thought of gambling dens as a place to park spare money. One by one, and slowly but surely, all men in the family kissed the bottle and kicked the bucket, thus leaving the headstrong women to take charge. As other relations scuttled to foreign shores, Madhav was raised by his mother who singularly shouldered a crumbling haveli and a 700-students strong girls’ school in the neighbouring town. Madhav’s proficiency in English, the currency of the urban world, isn’t much to boast about either, but he is redeemed in his heritage – he was the sole contender for the title of the prince of Dumraon royal family.


On October 1, ‘Half Girlfriend’ simultaneously hit the e-shelves and living rooms across the country in the form of full-page advertisements. Not to skirt the tradition, critics and Quora quorums faithfully pilloried ‘India’s bestselling writer’ in the next few weeks. It was all the stuff fairy tales are made of. A month and a half later, a legal notice made its way from a durbar to a boardroom.


The real Dumraon royal family, it said, was offended by the vulgar insinuations “...which are false, derogatory in nature and impute conduct to our clients disparaging and/or degrading them as well as exposing our clients to contempt and/or ridicule and/or public hatred...” It demanded an unconditional apology, immediate recall of all the unsold books and removal of all the references made to the family. This came hot on the heels of the Dumraon locals burning effigies of the author for portraying the stereotypes about Bihar, its English handicap and the uncharitable references to the royal family.


“...so we thought, why not take advantage of our bankruptcy?” said Chandra Vijay Singh, guffawing to drive home the sarcasm. As his son Shivang would explain later, the family has enough going for them to enable the next two generations to survive and thrive.


Hai na?” he would look at a yes-man sitting by his side for reassurance.


“Four to five,” pat would be the reply.



 Pictured here with his wife Kanika Rani, 67-year-old Chandra Vijay Singh says he doesn’t believe parts of Half Girlfriend are fiction but ‘a personal attack’



On the given foggy December morning, the two of us with Shivang by our side sat at the office from where the family manages its various business interests. In its austerity, the office is a far cry from their house next door where the walls are splashed with hides of tigers, leopards and other hunting trophies; ferocious animals stuffed and frozen for eternity.  At the mansion, the family of six is headed by the current maharaja Kamal Singh and supported by a staff of 30, including full-time barbers, electricians, cobblers and the security staff. It was Chandra who had decided to pursue a defamation suit against the author.


67-year-old Chandra hasn’t read ‘Half Girlfriend’. He doesn’t want to, not after it became the talk of the town for all the wrong reasons. After the book released, several royal families across the country wrote to him, citing the aspersions he now alleges the novel has cast on his family. His son and acquaintances then marked the portions of the book for him to read wherein references were made to Dumraon and its royal family. Soon after, he consulted his lawyers and drafted a legal notice marked to Chetan Bhagat and the Rupa Publications. 


On November 24, ten days after the notice was sent, Bhagat replied to the lawyers hired by Singh. ‘I have not referred to your family in my book. The boy is imaginary, and his name is Madhav Jha, and he has nothing to do with your family,’ it said, alluding to the difference in surnames. ‘Sometimes in fiction you add drama and you use real names for cities because it adds authenticity and enhances the reading experience’.


“I don’t think it is fiction,” said Chandra on Bhagat’s reply. As we spoke, the sentry at the gatepost struck the gong once, indicating half past five. Most of his workforce had retired for the day, though the drivers continued to mill about at a distance, always a call away. “He has said ‘Dumraon Raj’, the family. There’s only one Dumraon Raj and there is no fictitious name... It is a personal attack.”


With an apology not forthcoming, Chandra is now gearing up to lock horns in the court. He cited previous experience of having done so in various property disputes. “He needs to compensate us for what he has already done – maligning our name.” It took a bit of prodding to for him to state that the compensation must come in monetary terms.


“What do you have in mind?”


“Nothing less than 20-30 crores. Thanks to us, he has minted money. After what we have taken out – a statement – his books are selling like hot cakes.”




Shivang Vijay Singh (24), the prince of Dumraon, has been flooded with messages on Facebook asking him if the book is based on him


‘Home delivery’ is a concept exclusive to one family of Dumraon. With most of the needs fulfilled within the expanse of their residence, the rest is a phone call away. “The shops come to us,” said Shivang, be it bangles or iPhones. Unless a soirrĂ© is marked on his calendar, the Rajputs prince seldom ventures out.


“That is why people respect us,” says Shivang, explaining the design of the social podium. “But I do go out once a week to talk to shopkeepers or hold a road-show.”


The Singhs belong to the non-ruling zamindari royalty, originally hailing from Ujjain district in Madhya Pradesh. The kingdom, set up the Parmar rulers of Jagdishpur, was founded in 1604 by its first ‘raja’ Narayan Mal. After the accession of the riyasat to the Indian rule in 1951, revenue from land holdings dried up and the family diversified into oil, healthcare and education. Post independence, their land holdings shrunk as the zamindari practice came to an end. Ever since, the family started exploring other avenues and is today involved in the fields of agriculture, oil, property, healthcare, education along with running a few charitable trusts.


Shivang will be the first after his grandfather to take a plunge into active politics. Kamal Singh, who served as a Member of Parliament between 1952 and 1962, is mostly bedridden after suffering a seizure in 2013. However, he continues to command his place in the banners hung across town promoting the Singh scion as the upcoming BJP leader.


A graduate in hotel management from an Aurangabad based institute, Shivang has a moderate approach towards the controversy. He is conscious of the caste and class ridden politics that have held its sway since time immemorial. Even as he speaks about the numerous friend requests he has received on Facebook since October, his concerns are more pragmatic. One of them is the upcoming movie based on the book, the rights of which were reportedly purchased by Ekta Kapoor prior to the book-release.


“People might use that, you know,” he says, as he gives me a walking tour of his residence. Once a day, the dusty walkways are ploughed by a car that drives his grandfather within the gated complex. “I am just getting into political career. They might say, aap to gareeb hai, aap to Jha hai (you are poor, you are a Jha).”


We briefly halt at the lake that was formerly used to bathe elephants. He points out the two enclosures that now lie vacant but once housed two bears and a pet tiger named Puss Puss. Finally, we settle down on cosy-chairs in an archway outside the house.


By now, the visiting hours have started. We are joined by two men who touch Shivang’s feet before they hand over a wedding invitation card. Shivang recognizes one of them as Rohit Mishra, a member of the local BJP youth unit. He introduces me and my purpose of visit. Mishra’s face lights up at the mention of Chetan Bhagat.


“I just want to say this: jab bhi woh yahan aayenge, hum unka acche se swagat karenge (whenever he will visit, we will welcome him just right),” says Mishra, before bowing out of the proceedings.


Shivang grins. “I didn’t say a word.”


***


DUMRAON IN PICTURES


Located in Buxar district between Bhojpur and New Bhojpur
 

  




  
The town with a population of around 50,000 is located about 120 km from Patna, the capital of Bihar


 At literacy of 71.59%, Dumraon rates higher than Bihar’s average of 61.80%
  

Temperatures fluctuate between high 40s in summer and go as low as 5 degree Celsius in winters

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