NAW Interview with Vikram Balagopal

Vikram Balagopal, an author, a filmmaker, a published poet, illustrator and cartoonist in magazines, was born in 1984 in the town of Quilon in Kerala, India. Coming from a family of serious readers, Vikram got introduced to reading early in life. An avid sketcher from the start, he began writing poems and short stories when he was nine and discovered cinema when he was twelve with a viewing of “2001: a space odyssey”. He has been a storyteller since childhood. As a child, he watched countless movies, wrote stories, screenplays and made several short films throughout his school years.

Bringing together his three passions of writing, visualizing and drawing, the 29 years old has devoted himself to the development of his epic retelling of the “Ramayana” in the Graphic Novel trilogy – “SIMIAN”. “SIMIAN” explores the “Ramayana” from Hanuman’s point of view, dissecting the decisions one has to make in a war situation and the consequences one has to then live with. The author has completed the first and second part of his “SIMIAN” trilogy, and is busy at work on the third part at present.

After spending a few years studying in Ooty, he finished his schooling in Trivandrum. Then he pursued a Filmmaking Program at the NYFA (New York Film Academy) and returned to India. Upon his return, he participated in the 2003 IFFK (International Film Festival of Kerala). Following that he worked as an Assistant Director on a major commercial Bollywood film called “Hulchul”. Since then Vikram has developed projects with various filmmakers including Santosh Sivan in the Indian Film Industry. His screenplay “Sentinel Rock” was chosen by Mira Nair for her Maisha Screenwriter’s Lab in 2006.

Vikram is currently based in Delhi and when he is not working, he enjoys photography, eating at new places, exploring city markets, reading, watching films and making documentaries.

Vikram’s father C. Balagopal is the author of “On A Clear Day You Can See India”, a nostalgic and sensitive account of his days in Manipur that was released in 2013.

NAW- What inspired you to retell the Ramayana in a graphic illustration format?

The substance of SIMIAN developed over a long period and when I decided to do it, the decision was already firm in my mind that it had to be a comic book/graphic novel. It would have been far less work for me to have written it as a novel, but I felt certain that the story had to be a book, and at the same time be told through images. I had read some incredible work in comics by then, from creators like Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman, so I knew the medium lent itself well to dramatic storytelling. I’ve always thought visually as far back as I can remember, and I am at home in cinema because of that, and felt as comfortable entering this rich medium.

NAW- There are many versions of the Ramayana. Which one did you base your story upon?

My source and guide for the Ramayana was the translation by Ralph T.H. Griffith.

NAW- Tell us about the research you carried out for Simian?

You could say my research began during the bedtime stories my grandmother used to tell me from the Ramayana, when I was little. My favourites were the episodes involving Hanuman and Bali, so it is no suprise that SIMIAN is the Ramayana from Hanuman’s perspective. However, my first readings of the epic were of C.Rajagopalachari’s and William Buck’s versions consecutively when I was 15, and I remember being struck by how much they varied in tone. Then over the years I explored the differing versions from various parts of India and Southeast Asia. It is fascinating that the story has survived thousands of years in so many languages in so many variations and is loved, discussed and worshipped.

NAW-In Simian, you have also made some significant departures from the mythological version such as Hanuman reaching for the moon and not the sun. Did you do it to provide more depth to Hanuman’s character?

Every change whether big or small has been in the service of the story I’m telling about Hanuman. But I made it a point to restrict the number and scope of the changes, because I didn’t set out to just do my version of the Ramayana, or a different take for the sake of change. Making too many changes would have defeated the purpose which was to experience these events from his unique perspective.

SIMIAN- Book Cover

NAW-How much did cinema influence your book? Which medium do you find better?

Cinema has had a profound impact on me and the stories I tell, from the time I was twelve. My background in cinema, as well as my passion for it, influenced the way I told the story. And as to which medium I find better, I will have to say that every medium wonderfully succeeds at achieving certain effects on the reader or viewer or spectator and stumbles at achieving others that another medium might succeed at effortlessly. Cinema can possess the viewer’s emotions for two hours in a darkened room like no other medium can, and yet a book can hold a reader over the course of days or weeks, even in just those ten minute breaks in the work schedule here or there. I can’t imagine a world without the many mediums that adds a textural richness to our lives.

NAW- You’ve chosen a very dark medium of black and white for the book. Why not fill it with colours?

I chose to do the illustrations in black and white because I felt it best suited the tone of the story. I do use the occasional splash of colour in the book, though I reserve it for special uses.

NAW- How did you get into writing? And how was your publishing experience?

I began writing stories and poetry when I was nine, so I’m comfortable doing it. Coming from cinema, though I had done cartoons and illustrations for magazines in the past, the book publishing experience was new to me. It was very long and arduous.

NAW- Any advice for upcoming writers?

Never stop reading.

NAW- Your thoughts on winning the award.

I feel deeply honoured that SIMIAN won the award for best graphic novel of the year. It is especially thrilling after years of solitary effort spent on the project.

Book Synopsis- Simian

SIMIAN is a detailed retelling of the Ramayana from Hanuman‘s point of view to highlight the price of war. The story is contained within the often glossed-over episode in the Mahabharata where Hanuman and Bhima meet, though it expands into the story of the Ramayana that we know so well. Or thought we did, until we realize there is a whole other feel to it, seeing it from Hanuman’s perspective. Though he only uses it to help Bhima see the consequence of war, when he learns of the feud between the Pandavas and Kauravas, it also serves as a window into his motivations and regrets. This book is only the first two parts, in a trilogy, of the entire story and confines itself to the events surrounding the search for Sita. The first two parts are complete and consist of 260 pages.

The subject justifies a book because we live in a time when only the smallest reason has to be given for war to be declared, and conflicts arise and linger in a vicious circle of tit for tat and the domino-effect consequence of it seems to be overlooked. It reflects what Hanuman says in this book, “for war to be truly understood, one must start at the end. To see what it left behind.” The Ramayana has been abridged to cartoonish simplicity in storytelling in books or movies or completely removed to worlds of science fiction and fantasy. What is missing is the version filled with the richness of characters and stories the original story has so much capacity for, but that has rarely been tapped. In this book they are no longer woodenly posed in motive or deed as the old murals. Each and every character is relatable. This novel is something more than a children’s book and less than a thick glob of academic text. It is Lord of the Rings meets Gone with the wind. The market for graphic novels is thriving the world over and growing, unlike that for novels. More young readers will be drawn to a dynamic visual rendering without the thick endless prose.

Authors experience in film and developing scripts and projects for other film-makers has lent him a cinematic eye to aid in telling this tale.

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