We spoke with Nandhini JS the author of the first-ever digital Tamil graphic novel, ‘Girl With A Red Nose Ring’. After debuting as a director with Thiru Thiru Thuru Thuru, she went on to discover the magic of other storytelling platforms.
You wrote the script of ‘Girl with a Red Nose Ring’ for your second film. How did you change your mind to share this story as a graphic novel?
Nandhini: I’ve always loved comic books and wanted to create them myself. The only thing that would come in my way was that I wasn’t a professional artist. I knew that hiring artists/illustrators would be a huge investment and thought I’d do it at a later stage in life.
My second film in Tamil was supposed to be a supernatural detective thriller titled ‘Kolai Nokku Paarvai’. But after just 10 days of shoot, the project was dropped due to lack of funds. At that time, I began thinking of other mediums that would give me the freedom to work on elaborate stories without compromising on the visual experience.
I came up with a fresh new story ‘Girl with a Red Nose Ring’ (titled Sivappu Kal Mookuthi in Tamil). Since this Romantic Horror story had the potential to be made into a feature film, I wrote it in the screenplay format. The structure was perfect for a graphic novel.
P.S: This is not ‘Kolai Nokku Paarvai’ by the way. I am currently turning KNP’s screenplay into my next upcoming comic book series ‘Inspector Rishi’, which I’m illustrating myself.
The novel received an incredible response. Did you expect it?
Nandhini: Expected? No. Aspired? Yes. I was confident about the story part as I have been writing stories since my school days and I’m a trained filmmaker. But I was worried about the artworks. There are lots of wonderfully illustrated comic books by brilliant artists out there. All through the production stage, I was really nervous of having the novel judged on its visuals. Fortunately, my team worked really hard and the illustrations turned out good. I’m grateful that whoever read GRNR enjoyed the experience and most of them took the effort to say nice things about it on social media.
From a romantic comedy film to a romantic horror graphic novel – how has the journey been? Also, tell us who has been your inspiration in the graphic novel scene?
Nandhini: I have to admit that it has been a struggle. Hailing from a middle class family with all its inherent problems, mothering a four year old kid and simultaneously striving to achieve something in cinema /comics industry hasn’t been easy. I do try my best to maintain an optimistic approach to life amidst failures. Creating stories and witnessing people enjoy those stories, gives me happiness. It makes all the struggles worth it.
My contemplations about making comic books turned into actions when I came to know that filmmaker/actor Shekhar Kapur created Devi and The Sadhu. I’ve always admired him for making commendable movies in completely different genres. I mean, if you didn’t know before, would you be able to guess that Masoom, Mr.India, Elizabeth and Bandit Queen were made by the same director? He was definitely an inspiration.
With respect to ‘story content’, the non-superhero comics series like ‘Y: The Last Man’ by Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra, Jim Butcher's ‘The Dresden Files’, ‘Locke and Key’ by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodríguez, and many more indie comics are my inspirations.
Tell us about the challenges you faced from the inception of this idea – finding illustrators, publishing on various mediums…
Nandhini: Well, firstly I didn’t have the money to invest in the project. I had to borrow partly from a bank and partly from family and well-wishers. It was a risk considering my situation. But I couldn’t forgo the idea.
Next challenge was finding illustrators. Experienced comics artists weren’t affordable in my budget. I didn’t want to outsource it to freelancers or part time artists who are neck deep in their other busy commitments. After a while, I got two young digital artists Magesh and Sainath on board. They were good illustrators but were unfamiliar with the American style comic art which is what I wanted for Sivappu Kal Mookuthi. The first 15 pages or so took 3 months to make and I still wasn't satisfied with the results. The sample images I posted online got harsh criticisms and demeaning remarks.
I couldn't let that continue. I just rolled up my sleeves, sat with the artists and showed them works of great comic artists from India and abroad. They started working harder. I also started learning to draw in the meantime. Three more months went by. I needed to be mentally strong and patient, especially as the artists were employed by me on full time basis for 6 months. Then slowly the artworks began to look the way I wanted and I got back the confidence. The project which was planned for 8 months took 16 months to complete.
The final challenge was the publishing part. I had run out of money by then, so the option of printing paperbacks of this 135 page colour graphic novel and distributing it myself was completely out of the picture. I couldn’t afford to wait for traditional publishers to pick it up. And there was no guarantee that they would. So I decided to release digitally. This option had its own challenges too. Readers in India are still warming up to the ‘ebook’ culture. Most of them still prefer paperbacks and are very dismissive of reading books on mobile devices or computers. Added to that, the number of people in India who make ‘online’ purchases is very small. The number of people who use credit/debit cards or netbanking to purchase products is fractional. This makes sale of ‘digital’ products like ebooks very difficult. I realized my audience is going to be limited but I had no other option. But I’m positive that things will improve in the coming years.
I have released the PDF versions on my site using Instamojo portal for Indian customers and Gumroad for International customers. I have also released Kindle versions through Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing. The English edition is also available in iBooks for iTunes and Comixology, the largest digital comics platform in the world.
Recently, I’ve also put up the first 40 pages for FREE. It can be read like Webcomics online.
Do share a word of advice for upcoming novelists.
Nandhini: Social media is indeed a boon to creators. It is a wonderful platform to spread the news about your work at zero or minimal cost compared to other traditional marketing and promotional efforts. I use Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Instagram, Pinterest, Deviantart, my personal blogs at Blogger, Tumblr, Wordpress etc to showcase and convey news/updates about my work.
As a promotional tactic, during the launch of GRNR, I made a comic book trailer also. The images from the comic book were animated to a catchy horror theme track composed by music director Ashwath and his team. People never expected to see a ‘video trailer’ for a Tamil comic book. It really helped create a buzz and get their attention. There are two kinds of indie comics/graphic novel creators. a. Artists who team up with like-minded writer friends and co-produce; b. Writers who hire artists. Writers who can get like-minded artists who would be willing to co-produce is a highly unlikely scenario as far as I have seen, especially in Tamil industry.
So, to upcoming graphic novelists who are artists, I’d say ‘Make sure you have a solid story. Work hard on that too. However the art turns out to be, ultimately people will appreciate engaging stories that resonate in their mind for a long time.
And, to upcoming graphic novelists who are writers, I’d like to say ‘Learn To Draw’.