Interview: Anil CS Rao

We spoke to Anil CS Rao, a graphic novelist in Hyderabad.

Anil CS Rao is a self-trained digital artist specializing in comics and graphic novels. He studied engineering at Pratt Institute in 1988 and did an MFA in writing and an MS in architecture recently.  His wife Padmaja who has been painting and drawing since her elementary school days is a self-taught artist. She did a brief course in painting at the Washington Studio School in DC. Most of her life was spent working as a lecturer at St Teresa’s College in Eluru, India.   He left Hydrabad in 1968 at the age of four and recently returned to reside again in Hyderabad, Telangana in 2017 under the OCI scheme with his wife and children after having worked for over fifteen years as an engineer.

Tell us about your latest work Manhattanville/Y2K.

Manhattanville/ Y2K - TeluguI had worked from 1990 to 1994 in the City of New York in the capacity of Electrical Designer and my focus was on primary low voltage systems such as telephone, fire alarm, etc.  My short story Manhattanville – the first in the anthology – was based on my observations of people working for the New York City Civil Service as well as a vague allusion to a bus depot I had been assigned to work on as a design engineer.  During its construction, I visited the real-life construction site and became friends with many people working in the construction inspection and project management team,  who were primarily of Indian origin members and mostly from the state of Gujarat in India. This is fiction – not to be construed as documenting real lives or scenarios – but of course, the characters, setting and plot were a composite of my imagination and many of the friends I had made during that project’s construction.

Likewise, Y2K is based on similar observations when I later worked as an Operations Engineer for the State of California around the time of the so-called ‘Y2K’ computer glitch.  The purely fictional scenario, characters and setting were once again a composite of my imagination and real-life stories of people I met while working for the State of California from 1999 to 2002.

BharathiYou’ve written prose novels but there are more graphic novels in your repertoire. Why is that?

I have an MFA in Fiction from the National University in San Diego (offered 100% online) in which I took all my advanced electives in fiction writing.  The only program in The States in Comic Book Creation (‘sequential art’) was at the time offered as a residency Masters at Cal Arts – and I would not have been able to physically relocate to California, given my family and other logistical reasons.  Hence my first work Bharathi: Her Theory of Everything was done for my MFA Thesis requirement despite my wish to submit a ‘graphic’ piece which would not be accepted in fulfilling the department’s Thesis requirement.

Describe the process of writing a graphic novel.

I use solely a relatively ‘canned’ character/environment 3D program called DAZ Studio for my CG generated artwork.  My wife then alters, modifies and/or ‘corrects’ my CG work in Adobe Photoshop.  For scripting, I initially used CELTX software – but now the program no longer supports the comic book format I currently just work from a template in MS Word.  Of course, things change when translating a written script into a graphic novel/comic book. One becomes in many ways a cinema director interpreting a script for celluloid in that unknown elements might impose changes (in my case a lack of 3D resources).

You collaborate with your wife Padmaja as well. Tell us about the experience of producing books and art with your better half.

My wife is a very proficient painter with excellent freehand skills. I learned my lessons from my past work which was released without her help. Now all my work is scrutinized by her prior to committing to print.

While creating your novels and art,  influences of the US and Hyderabad seep into your work. Why?

I was born in Hyderabad in 1964 at Neelofar Hospital – it may be the case I will breathe my final breath in that same hospital.  Hyderabad has been always in my heart, despite immigrating to the United States in 1969. I subsequently visited Hyderabad almost every summer holiday I was given by the American school system.  In 2016, I returned to Hyderabad with my family with really no plans of ever returning to The States.

Your books are also published in Telugu. What kind of challenges do you face while writing in multiple languages?

I first attempted a Telugu work way back 12 years ago.  I was trying to come up with a Telugu language script for Ingmar Bergman’s script for his film titled Winter Light.  I feel this would be the best example to cite because of both the parallels and cultural asymmetries I faced – in translating not only from one language to another – but in transposing the dialog and the culture in which its rooted from Sweden to India – specifically a village in Andhra Pradesh with a Lutheran pastor in a small church morphed into a Hindu Brahmin ‘pujari’ servicing a small Vaishnavite temple in Andhra.  I ran my pitch to noted Telugu poet A. Jayaprabha (co-author of a book of poems with PV Narasimha Rao – Unforeseen Affection) with whom I was an acquaintance in Hyderabad at the time. Her comment summarizes the dilemma I faced: “Telugu people just don’t talk in that manner”.  This was prior to my marriage to a Telugu-speaking Indian National and now, after having lived in India on and off for the past 14 years I have some inkling of the real Indian idiom with respect to dialog and behavior of Indian characters in contrast to their Western counterparts.  By the way, I am still working on this project 12 years later. I have not given up – only drastically changing the plot and other elements of Bergman’s original script so that I am not accused of intellectual or aesthetic theft.

Tell us more about this work in progress.

My current work-in-progress (to be released in Telugu and English) is Vizag Blue. If you google the term, you’ll find it refers to a very beautiful blue marble quarried in or around Visakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh.  It’s a metaphor for the protagonist of my work as seen at first by her Nurse attendant and the Doctor treating her: beautiful, hard, and cold.  The narrative was inspired by an Ingmar Bergman film from the 1960s titled Persona starring Liv Ulma, a woman (stage actress) who is admitted into a Swedish psychiatric hospital for not being able to verbally communicate, and her relation with her nurse attendant Sister Alma.  That is about where the commonality of characters and settings ends. My work takes a totally different trajectory plot-wise than Bergman’s original masterpiece.

Kalpana, a student of theater at the Andhra University in Vizag is engaged to a fellow student who subsequently breaks his engagement to return to Mumbai to his parent’s place to continue his studies there. Soon after his departure, Kalpana begins ‘hearing things’ and finds herself in an expensive mental hospital in Vizag. Instead of revealing her hallucinations to the medical staff, she maintains silence and refuses to speak. The doctor, Reena Rao, observes her for a month and is unable to find anything wrong with her symptom-wise and offers her vacant beach house outside Vizag were she could get out of the hospital setting along with a private duty nurse Usha. The house had been on the market for over a year and rather than pay someone to watch over it, Dr. Reena thought this arrangement would be mutually beneficial. Normally, Kalpana is kind and compassionate in nature. When the ‘voices’ rule her mind her thoughts turn nasty and negative. Her relationship with Usha goes beyond the superficial as Usha uses Kalpana’s silence as a backdrop to narrate her own failures in love and marriage. Usha narrates a story about her first sexual encounter with a boy in her village when she was 16. And upon accepting the boy’s advances, she becomes hesitant and the boy subsequently rapes her. She later becomes pregnant with his child and her mother attempts to force her to have a ‘home abortion’ rather than face family stigma. She also narrates short explanations of her husband Anil, who during his student days was a radical communist who ironically is of Brahmin parentage. The abortion is stopped and Usha and Anil marry to adopt the child as their own. After a while, smoking a hidden supply of marijuana and experiencing symptoms, she reacts to an expression of hurt by the nurse after reading a letter she wrote that was returned to the post office for lack of proper address. In the letter, she writes very negative opinions of Usha and the stories she shared with Kalpana. Kalpana runs out of the house on the beach as Usha pursues her. Usha trips and ceases her pursuit. In a shaded grove adjacent to the beach, Prem appears as a hallucination and they both take a ride on his scooter through Vizag. He informs Kalpana that he had broken his engagement in Mumbai and now wishes to be engaged once more to Kalpana. On the beach, they consummate their love – at least in Kalpana’s hallucination……

Your favorite graphic novel?

Daniel Clowes’ Ghost World.  Its convoluted plotline and dialog mesmerized me, and later more so the film adaptation starring Steve Buscemi.  Clowes graduated from Pratt Institute in 1984 just when I started my BE studies there (I graduated in 1988).

Your experience with self-publishing. – the best in the business. No more comments required on this question.

Was a pleasure talking to you, Anil! All the best for your future projects!