Where the selfie is currency

Jaideep Unudurti | Updated on January 22, 2018 Published on September 18, 2015

Click me! Women almost outnumber men amongst the cosplayers. Girls in hijabs and headscarves disappear into the changing room and emerge as Maleficent or blonde bewigged Khaleesi. Courtesy: Comic Con

A day spent at Comic Con, Hyderabad, quickly reveals that it is a haven for consumers and a lonely refuge for creators

I am at the Hyderabad Comic Con, which is two days and 40,000 sq ft of pop culture. Journalism is my day job but I also write comics under a pseudonym. While this alter ego has sold comics at Cons all over the world, I’m attending for the first time as a visitor — on the behest of an editor.

Breathing the exhalations of 30,000 people for several hours is not something I’m keen on. But the college-age crowd whoop with excitement as they enter. Waves of Telugu hip-hop blast through the hall. Baba Sehgal is on stage, belting out, ‘They call him the cool cool angry man… he is a human tsunami/Sare pada gama ne sa/Come come on karo ____’, as he hits the punch line, the good Baba swings the mic to the crowd. Instead of shouting ‘jalsa’ they merely respond with an inchoate roar — the ‘happy to be here roaring’ roar.

As I take in the spectacle I think back to the ‘origin story’ of comic book conventions. In the US, they started when fans, mostly teenagers or young men, began looking for a safe haven free from aggressive bullies and disapproving parents. Even the government and the media was against them — comics were seen as leading America into decadence. Starting off in basements, the fans had to endure several decades of being ridiculed.

Only now the geeks have inherited the earth, though the mega-events of today don’t bear any trace of a once-persecuted subculture. In India, which has four major Cons in a year — Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru and Hyderabad (all managed through the global chain Reed Pop) — this relation is totally upended. The Cons are mega-bazaars where people who stream Game of Thrones or have watched Avengers want to pig out on merchandise. These people are super consumers. Not fans.

An organic base of decades of comics and fandom eventually led to mega-events like San Diego. There hasn’t been any such growth in India, where interest in pop culture has been driven top-down. There is one publisher that could claim this organicity. I head to the Raj comics stall where feverish fans pore over posters of Parmanu the Wonderman and Super Commando Dhruv, all presided by a glowering bust of Doga — the half-dog, half-man all-crime fighting vigilante. A Doga movie to be helmed by Anurag Kashyap has been in development hell for years. Who knows it may just jumpstart the Raj Cinematic Universe?

I don’t see a single cosplayer (person in costume) as Chacha Chaudhary or Sabu — there is no place for them here. The volcanoes erupt in vain.

As I push my way deeper, familiar sights assail me. There are long lines snaking to the sole ATM. The intense crush is always kryptonite to any card machine.

Once you are in the heart of the convention floor, you are sucked into the whirl and counter-flows of the crowd. Some stalls are located near cataracts where invisible lines of force churn in a constant flow while others are located in backwaters, shores swept bare of customers. I immediately notice these unfortunates, with their dead-eyed proprietors staring out behind vast piles of unsold inventory.

The crowd is a vast animal that doesn’t know what it wants. All manner of merchandise is on display. Mugs, coasters, key chains, plush toys, shoes and t-shirts. Amidst the sameness of the offerings I do find a few independent creators. There are four students from Jharkhand who have written, drawn and self-published their comic and are travelling from Con to Con displaying their work.

Then there is Mahayodha, a war strategy card game using stories from Hindu mythology as the basis, ‘where Shiva meets Sun Tzu’ as the promo, says. If Ram attacks you for example, you can use the Kaikeyi card to send him into exile. The artwork for the cards is an eclectic mix, blending cultures. The designer explains that many of the artists were Polish, giving their Ravan the look of a Slavic Hetman.

Cosplayers prowl the aisles. They pause every few feet as enthusiasts request a selfie. Jokers form the baseline. There are Jokers in pinstriped suits, Jokers in nurses outfit, Jokers with smeared makeup made famous by Heath Ledger. Even more basic is V from Vendetta. A Guy Fawkes plastic mask and a hoodie is enough for your entry-leveller. At the other end there are intricately elaborate creations, taking hundreds of man-hours to put together. A seven-foot high Groot gently wends his way, dozens of cellphone cams are held up to herald his passage. This is a world where the selfie is the currency.

Women almost outnumber men amongst the cosplayers. Girls in headscarves disappear into the changing room and emerge as Maleficent or blonde bewigged Khaleesi.

I talk to Svathi, a bubbly engineering student who is one of the volunteers. There are 120 of them who slog it out without pay through the weekend setting up the event. What motivates her? She waves her arm around, “fans going crazy,” she says.

Jaideep Unudurti is a Hyderabad-based writer

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Published on September 18, 2015
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