This week, our writers delve in to the fantastical world of puppetry!
We checked out Priya and the Twirling Winds online from Little Angel Theatre; a new collaboration between the incredible Ram Devineni (named “gender equality champion” by UN Women) and esteemed UK-based puppetry director Raven Kaliana. The story follows Priya, who visits an ill and frightened child in hospital, Somya. Priya shows Somya the environmental sources impacting her health and introduces her to an idyllic land full of Priya’s magical friends, which inspires Sonya to take action in her own life when she returns.
Were our writers taken along for the ride (flying tigers and all)? Let’s see…
I wish this had been longer. The captivating characters and rich world history hinted at here deserved more.
Yes, this short by character creator Ram Devineni and award-winning puppetry director Raven Kaliana is aimed at children; but not every child has the attention span of a gnat.
Climate change is really resonating right now with increasingly savvy kids. There was enough of a decent story and interesting visuals to warrant stretching the running time and digging deeper into what can be done. Instead, the finished product feels unnecessarily rushed and the message that change is hard but necessary was a little too simplistic. While charmingly shot, it came across like an infomercial on climate change rather than the intended call to arms. Everyone gets a little short-changed.
It doesn’t pull any punches, which I liked. Frightened young asthma sufferer Somya is plucked from her hospital bed by Priya, India’s first female superhero. They soar through the country’s smoke-filled sky atop Priya’s flying tiger Sahas, seeing first-hand the damage wrought by cars and factories.
Then, they visit Priya’s mystical homeland, a place of purity protected thanks to the teamwork of her magical friends (who I really wanted to know more about). Planting the seeds for hope (albeit via a wishy washy “we can all do it together” mentality) Somya is inspired to change her world for the better too.
Ironically, Priya is a much more three-dimensional character in her comic book series for teenagers than in this child-friendly short. But then her origins are much darker: a rape survivor gifted with the power of persuasion, she’s able to motivate people to change. Rooted in ancient matriarchal traditions displaced in modern representations of Hindu culture, she uses love, creativity and solidarity to fight the patriarchy, misogyny and indifference.
Priya became a symbol for women’s rights, helping shift the blame off victims of sexual violence and helping other women stand firm in the face of gender-based violence. This stance saw the comic book creators honoured by UN Women as gender equality champions.
The rod puppets, made by Kaliana, are lovely. They are complemented by artist Syd Fini’s beautiful backgrounds. The performances are, again, simple but warm. The accompanying augmented reality elements such as the interactive comic book with its pop-up videos and interviews with scientists adds a clever touch.
In an online media landscape cluttered with the worst possible content Priya and the Twirling Winds is a commendable antidote. After spending just a few minutes on YouTube Kids, a capitalist apocalypse of mass-produced animation and nonsense content devoid of any value, it became clear that Priya was one of the only things there I’d actually be comfortable letting a young child watch. A project with beautifully crafted puppets and backgrounds, and an understandable social message, being freely available online is a dearly-needed relief.
As a piece of early-years entertainment it is excellent, with a perfect sense of tone. It deals with a serious subject matter, starting off with a child being hospitalised by an asthma attack, but doesn’t let the story get so bogged down in seriousness that it would scare or overwhelm a child audience. Instead, Priya, carefully takes a step back and uses the fantastic elements of the superhero character to talk about the air pollution that’s causing Somya’s asthma in a way that is simple enough for a child to follow while also respecting the intelligence of its audience and avoiding condescension. The character of Priya provides a pair of safe hands to lead a young child through the issues of the world in a way that’s accessible to them.
But this strength is also a weakness: Priya is too child friendly and doesn’t provide anything that makes it worth watching for adults (though of course, we’re not the target audience). At just over 5 minutes long, it isn’t difficult to just bear with the show, but I couldn’t imagine myself sitting down with a young child and making it through an extended version of this format. In fact, the only laugh I got in the entire video was entirely by accident; near the end of the story Somya asks Priya if she’ll ever see her again, Priya remains silent and the camera cuts back to the hospital. The abrupt cut of the narrative flow made it feel like Priya was avoiding Somya’s question in a way that was so strange and awkward I ended up laughing out loud.
These weird directorial decisions run throughout, and it’s not just jarring cuts between scenes (though there are a lot of them), but the way the narrative is framed. Priya starts off by showing Somya the causes of pollution in her home city, and then offers an escape by taking her to a magic world that has kept all this smoke out. On the face of it there’s nothing wrong with this, but the imaginative logic directs us not to a world in which we’ve overcome our problems, but instead to one in which they never existed to begin with. Again this isn’t bad, it’s just strange that solutions are framed as something that exist outside the real world, after going to pains to show how problems emerge from the world Somya actually lives in. The production isn’t naive and knows that there are no simple or individual solutions, but all it really offers is an idea that we should work together without saying what that work is.
These aren’t fundamentally bad choices. They don’t undo the excellent craftsmanship that made Priya, or undermine the well-balanced tone, nor do they detract from the actual message that air pollution is a crisis and we need to work together to fix it. All of this is done extremely well within a narrow frame of time and with a small pool of resources. It really is a story worth sharing with the kids, even if it is a little bit weird.
You can watch Priya and the Twirling Winds, as well as many other puppet shows, online and for free on the Little Angel Theatre website.