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'Video games are a great place for politics': meet India's modern satirists

In Gujarat, a tiny independent studio is drawing on India’s rich literary history to create surreal games that flow like visual poems, evoking decades of colonial literature and folk theatre to draw attention to the politics of today. Through fantastical environments where buildings and oversized monuments are made of rubber sandals and toothpaste tubes, Studio Oleomingus – made up of writer/artist Dhruv Jani and programmer Sushant Chakraborty, with help from another programmer, Vivek Savsaiya – crafts interactive stories that cast a playful light on India’s complicated past and present.

“We find video games to be excellent spaces for political discourse,” Jani tells me over Skype. “The government is hardly bothered about something as ‘trivial’ as video games, and they also give you a lot of room to think and ponder complex ideas.”

The studio’s short, experimental games, drenched in vibrant colours and otherworldly imagery, pay homage to the magical realist, nonsense literature that defined many Indian childhoods. The country has a rich heritage of subversive art and literature that reached a peak with the introduction of Victorian cartooning and caricature. Jani and Chakraborty are especially fond of the Gujarati author and educator Gijubhai Badheka, known for a series of children’s stories featuring colourful characters and animals. The Bengali writer Sukumar Ray is another major influence, especially his collection of nonsense poems and stories for children, Abol Tabol. “He edited a children’s magazine in Bengal that was also used to send secret political messages to people trying to organise rallies under British rule,” says Jani. “He would infect the magazine with these ridiculous and fantastical sketches about animals joining together to form bizarre creatures.”

Commissioned by the V&A in 2019, Studio Oleomingus’ In the Pause Between the Ringing presents an imagined history of telephone mining, and was displayed under the same roof as the museum’s wealth of displaced Indian treasures. A Museum of Dubious Splendors is an interactive storybook about the work of a fictional poet called Mir UmarHassan – a character that plays a role in many of Oleomingus’s games, serving as a lens through which to examine the problems of recording and remembering history as told by colonisers, and the thorny issues of appropriation, authenticity and authorship.

In The Indifferent Wonder of an Edible Place, meanwhile, the player is a “municipal building eater”, tasked with consuming structures and their history. (The game is steeped in real-life events that date back to 1992, when a 500-year-old mosque in Ayodhya, the Barbri Masjid, was razed by a violent Hindu mob.) Future projects include Under a Porcelain Sun, a more conventional adventure that follows two young forgers searching for a lost document that leads to a fabled city, and A Diagram of Leaving, a story about the split of India and Pakistan that Jani describes as “a little bit of my own family history wound into a larger story of a town that disappears during the partition”.

The air of magical realism gives the makers leeway to rebel against accepted history, which is always written by the coloniser. “We like the idea of disrupting expectations,” says Jani, “of creating anarchic moments where how you interact with a story and what you expect from it are fundamentally uncomfortable.” He is also inspired by folk theatre “because plays are real-time events, and often involve viewer participation, especially in the town square or out on the street. They are very similar to video games.”

Jani and Chakraborty are driven by their strong opposition to Narendra Modi’s government, which they feel has taken a worrying direction since coming to power in 2014, including stoking tensions between Hindu and Muslim communities, and using colonial sedition laws to punish critics. Recently, the government has been criticised for its response to the Covid-19 pandemic as it struggles with 2.6m infections, inadequate medical funding and a lockdown that worsened poor conditions for the working class. Its actions – including power-spraying migrant workers with industrial-grade disinfectant – have spurred new conversations about resistance. “I think that the government is, at this point, engaged in an undemocratic war against minorities, and it is incumbent on everybody to call them out,” says Jani.

“[The government’s] horrific actions … are being perpetrated at such scale and at such frequency that they have become almost routine, in that repeated performance,” Jani says. “It’s going to be very hard to go back to that point in time when we were not used to such casual anarchy and evil by the ruling elite.”

Unlimited by physical barriers and largely disregarded by the government, video games are an ideal place to continue India’s subversive tradition. Oleomingus is documenting a complex social and political reality, and in doing so carrying on the work of poetry, cartoons and folk theatre. “Video games are beautiful and irreverent places where you can do political commentary,” says Jani “and without inciting [too much] ire from your subjects.”

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