Chhotu and Bapu
Chhotu and Bapu Chhotu

Indian Graphic Novel 'Chhotu' About Partition, Bollywood & Aloo-Parantha is A Must-Read

What had started off as the conception of a tale of a Chandni Chowk boy in the modern-day who finds Shaktimaan’s magical underpants and becomes a superhero turned into the parable of a boy trying to find meaning and, well, being a hero in 1947. Set in turbulent times when, according to Professor Gyan Prakash, “bigotry, political machinations and violence overtook everyday life”, graphic novel Chhotu: A Tale of Partition and Love is at its heart, a tale of love, courage, and self-discovery. When our protagonist Chhotu, a student-cum-parantha-cook finally decides to approach his school crush Heer, he finds that the town’s aloos (potatoes) have suddenly gone missing and no aloo is equal to no parantha. He sets on the journey of solving the mysterious case until he finds himself reluctantly embroiled into the world of corruption, crime, and local dons. As he struggles to understand what freedom truly means, the impending threat of inevitable transformation and suffering keeps becoming more and more real.

Written by Varud Gupta, who would have been a businessman had it not been for what he calls an “existential crisis” that led him to writing, and Ayushi Rastogi, a graphic designer and illustrator, who has created a board game for children with dyslexia amongst other great things, Chhotu takes a very local and very relatable approach to one of the most devastating experiences in South Asian history. Common people’s common lives are still made of common things like paranthas (sorry, Bapu!) and school crushes even in the midst of the greatest of problems in the world and Chhotu teaches us that it is with the people that surround us that we find our value and we only find our freedom when we stand up for those people. It’s also that it is the small things that make big differences.

Even though 73 years apart, the years 1947 and 2020 come across as strikingly similar in terms of political patterns. While on the one hand there is hatred-based politics, on the other, there is wealth accumulation and control of information released to the public via media. Not only are all the brands advertised on the local radio-controlled by one very powerful person, but he is also the one literally dictating the news to the locals. The depiction of communal violence, manipulation, and twisty political machinations, makes one wonder if we have come any closer to freedom at all even after 72 years of ‘freedom’. The research and development phase for Chhotu took the authors some good 4-6 months of its own. On the story front, they had countless sessions with their beloved Nana teaching them about his experiences during the time including details they could have never found in books. Gupta took those anecdotes and mapped them against historical events and written narratives to corroborate and tie as much of the reality into Chhotu’s character arc.

Visually, Rastogi went through countless renditions of character styles, evolving as the story did, along with environments, illustration techniques, and panel designs. They heavily relied on existing photographs of the time to build the graphic world.

One of the biggest selling points of Chhotu is that its characters entirely anthropomorphic. More interesting than that is how this book imagines Jawaharlal Nehru as a hare! On being asked why, the authors said, “On one hand, we wanted to put a twist on how Maus (1980) used animals to highlight the divisions between communities. In Chhotu, it was important for us to show that Chandni Chowk was very much a mixing and melding of people from all walks of life; that we are born first, and our identities–whether religious or cultural–are instilled after. And thus, Chandni Chowk became our little Animal Kingdom. On the other hand, we knew we wanted to push the character stories that are woven through the novel and leaned into the animals’ stereotypes for relatability and a touch of humour that would allow us to unpack such a turbulent time.”

It can be intriguing to think how many people got the opportunity to ‘fly’ as the bird characters could in the wake of the Partition. Again, our Chhotu monkey, Bol Gappa the parrot, gazelle Heer, and lion Shere only add to the imagination it takes to ‘see’ a story come alive. With a sumptuous course of Bollywood-infused dialogues and drama, Chhotu reads and feels like a Bollywood film. Chapter titles like ‘Oonchi Hai Building’ and ‘Jab Tak Rahega Aloo’ take us all back to our favourite 90s and early 2000s masala movies. Gupta, who has lost count of the hours he and his siblings have spent watching Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jaayenge, Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham, and Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and Rastogi, who keeps going back to Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Bunty aur Babli, and Hum Tum, say, “Bollywood is without a doubt the most relatable storytelling medium in India and it became only natural to use that old school Bollywood rom-com feel like a vehicle for this story.” One knows the Bollywood fever is real when someone confesses “partying hard” to cheesy Bollywood songs.

Despite working through parallel storylines, Chhotu does not miss out on providing nuance to its characters. For instance, the villain is actually a poet and wants to be published someday. They use the trope of ‘intervals’ to give the side characters a moment to shine and explore their tangents. The intervals also reveal the insecurities of being creative, probably a reflection of the authors’ personal tussle with working on Chhotu the way they did.

All in all, a beautiful amalgamation of love, exploration, politics, and tonnes of Bollywood masala, Chhotu is definitely not one to be missed. More information can be found here.

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