January 14, 2014

Story Boxes: Rajesh Devraj & Meren Imchen

By Preksha Sharma


Left: Meren Imchen, Right: Rajesh Devraj

Many reviewers expressed an understandable ambiguity towards the graphic novel Sudershan (Chimpanzee) (2012), for even in the niche groove of Indian graphic novels, it has evaded all conventions. “I’ve always seen the book as a fable of sorts, the tale of a monkey who wants to be human and fails in the attempt,” says writer, Rajesh Devraj. In an online article featured on thebigindianpicture.com in January 2013, Devraj writes about his experience of an interview with Nanabhai Bhatt whom he describes as a “prolific director of stunt films and mythologicals in the fifties.” 8

In an honest confession, Devraj writes, “I am ashamed to say that I remember very little of what Nanabhai said that day… Even more embarrassing, what I do remember from that encounter is not any significant film history, but the picture of a chimpanzee. The photograph, which had pride of place in Nanabhai’s album, showed a slightly manic-looking creature posing for the camera.” Consequently, he reveals that the ‘creature’ was Nanabhai’s favourite character, Perdro, a performing monkey who was a ‘star’ for a score of Indian B-movies in 50’s and 60’s.

Sudershan, in many ways, is a fantastical extrapolation of this encounter (although it does not have any borrowings from or renderings of Nanabhai’s life story). “It gave me the germ of the idea certainly. Many years later, I remembered this encounter and thought of doing a story about the strange, twisted relationship between a director and his ape star, based in an imaginary world where animal stars are as popular as human actors,” says the writer, who in past has been a creator and curator of some iconic work in the familiar territory of B grade films and other Indian cinema. This includes scripting an uncanny movie ‘Quick Gun Murugun’ and authoring a book which attempts to understand the visual language of Bollywood poster design, The Art of Bollywood (2010).

Yet, Devraj divulges his deep disinterest in nostalgia or odes and adds that it is the imagery of the cinema, more than the movies themselves, that draws him.“It’s also interesting to use this imagery to tell darker, more complex stories,” he says, in a way accurately defining the tone and style of Sudershan (Chimpanzee). To achieve this, Devraj says that he was lucky that illustrator Meren Imchen connected with the story on an intuitive level. “It took a couple of quick rounds of sketches, that’s all. After that, it was quite easy for me to visualize everything the way he’d draw it, and write to his strengths,” says Devraj.


Though there might appear a certain effortlessness and spontaneity in Imchen’s illustrations, it attenuates accurately with the narrative. Even the tone of the illustrations riding the story gets rougher and darker to reflect corresponding emotions. Imchen’s illustration style is passionate and emotional with a scratchy, hand-drawn look “to express the simian protagonist’s jittery energy and his unstable character.” References were taken from B movie stills and Mary Ellen Mark’s photographs of the Indian circus for their “gritty, surreal quality”, but the entire book is hand-drawn, first with a pencil, post which tonality is added with black ink or poster colour and ultimately an ink pen is used to add roughness in the texture. And so it is not difficult to imagine Imchen’s admiration for Ralph Steadman’s work, which also has lot of scratchy lines and ink blotches. 2

References from Mary Ellen Mark’s photographs of the Indian circus

Prior to Sudershan (Chimpanzee), the artist-author duo had a tryst with the graphic novels space with a six-page story on the same theme for Man’s World magazine where they had experimented with panels and lettering. “But for the book, we decided on a simpler panelling style to keep the focus on the characters and the narrative,” says Imchen, defending the conventional panel structure of the book. Irrespective, the story flows smoothly with no hiccups and this, along with a superb narrative from Devraj, is also credited to Imchen’s experience in animation. “I approached the whole process of visualization as I would in a film. I imagined the sequence in my mind, and then I picked the key frames for the panels,” he says. Imchen has won the 54th National Film Award for Best Animation and Direction, 2007 for his film Nokpoliba. coke

Sketch done for Man’s World



Experiments with paneling and lettering styles

Another reason which makes this book a must ‘experience’ is its snuggle fit in the category of graphic novels. The creators’ work is so compelling and convincing that it is hard to imagine the representation in any medium, other than a graphic novel. The opening page itself commands the reader to suspend their beliefs and this is not just because of ‘talking animals’ but the equations homo-sapiens share with these animals. Some parts, where the chimpanzee (the protagonist, Sudershan) is copulating and sharing a relationship with humans are alternately disturbing and amusing. Other depictions of the self-destructive alcoholic simian star (who also pops acid pills and smokes cigarettes) might boggle the realistic notions of a reader. But throughout the story, the narrative and the art will convince the reader to believe in the story.

A very interesting aspect of the novel is the accuracy of the lingo, a very colloquial Bombay style with generous helpings of spoken Hindi, written in Latin script. So obviously, Devraj says, the novel is for those who understand both the languages. The text becomes all the more delectable with hand-written lettering by Shamik Majumdar. His lettering further lends a natural quality to the characters. The style is, Majumdar says, “mostly how I would usually write with a 0.3 rotring pen.”


Throughout the process, dozens of sheets were crumbled and discarded but Majumdar preferred that over roughing out the text in pencil. “It was a bit terrifying to think that I was literally ‘writing’ the type that would be used with Meren’s lovely illustrations and Rajesh’s story. So mostly it was finding the right ‘reverie’ to just sit and focus. It was enjoyable in a meditative sort way and helped me get through London’s particularly gloomy winter months.” Devraj says that, to him, the book reflects how we all, in a sense, are like mimicking apes like Sudershan as we construct ourselves out of other people’s gestures and words. While that is the essence of the story of the novel, it stands in a complete irony to the narrative, artwork and lettering where there is no mimicking, no ‘monkey see monkey do’. Everything in the book is fiercely original.

This piece was originally published in Kyoorius Magazine 16

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