Published on October 20th, 2017 | by Clint Davis
Summary: This Bollywood drama is a statement film if there ever was one. Maya pulls no punches in presenting the horrors that people turn a blind eye to in the names of religion and tradition.
NR | 105 min.
Director: Digvijay Singh
Screenplay: Emmanuel Pappas, Digvijay Singh
Starring: Nitya Shetty, Nikhil Yadav
Distribution: Kundalini Pictures
Note: This review contains no spoilers.
Watching this film took me back to the first time I read Shirley Jackson’s short story The Lottery. You find yourself settled into a story about relatable people and are so taken in by the mundanity of their actions that when the author — or in this case, director — suddenly reveals what’s really been happening the entire time, it feels like you’ve been dropkicked in the gut.
The plot twist in Maya is so stunning that when director/co-writer Digvijay Singh finally reveals it, you feel like you need to shower with scalding water to get the grime off yourself.
But Maya has more to offer than just its ending. It also boasts soulful performances, gorgeous cinematography and a wonderful score.
This movie was recommended to me by a colleague who’s proven time and time again to match my tastes. Tracking down a copy of it for sale seems to be nearly impossible (Amazon had some DVDs starting at about $30 used), but I found it through my local library and suggest you do the same if you are hunting it down.
Produced in India and spoken in Hindi, Maya is a Bollywood film by definition but doesn’t fit any of the stereotypes that come to mind when I think of Bollywood. The picture is colorful but there’s no singing, no dancing, no cheesy acting and no overbearing romance to be found in its frames. This is kitchen sink realism that morphs into a statement film that indicts a small sect of Indian culture and urges its viewers to question the world around them.
The plot follows a 12-year-old girl named Maya (Nitya Shetty) who lives with her aunt, uncle and male cousin in a loving and supportive household. The family is affluent and they treat Maya as their own daughter. She and her cousin Sanjay (Nikhil Yadav) are best friends who constantly get in trouble for playing pranks and running off without telling anyone. When Maya gets her first period, the family rejoices and begins preparations for a prayer ceremony that is traditional for young girls upon reaching puberty. The entire village, including the local priest who will lead the ritual, rejoices in planning and preparing for the ceremony while the girl is forced to come to grips with the notion that she’s no longer a child.
Maya’s coming of age is also tough on Sanjay, who treats her more like a twin sister than a cousin. The tight relationship between these two kids is the lifeblood of the film. As actors, Shetty and Yadav were virtually rookies when they did Maya, based on what I could find out about them, their performances have that natural realism that’s thrilling when pulled off by a newcomer. Neither child has gone on to have much of an acting career beyond this picture, which I hope is the result of them not wanting to be actors because they both certainly showed they were talented enough for it here.
Sanjay is like Maya’s shadow. They go everywhere together and are constantly hatching schemes that would get them into trouble if Sanjay’s father Arun (Anant Nag) wasn’t such a generous and beloved figure in their community. When they do need a little scolding, the benevolent Arun hands disciplining duties to his wife Lakshmi (Mita Vashisht), who is the sterner of the pair but is far from cruel. Ultimately, the pair of guardians make a home that any audience member would feel lucky to have grown up in.
Much of the first half of Maya is all about getting the viewer settled into this family and their lives at home. They are a supportive, understanding group of people and despite Maya and Sanjay acting mischievously, they seem to be great kids who respect their parents and are clearly curious about the world around them. Put simply, it’s a portrait of a family that appears perfect from the outside and in.
Digvijay Singh, himself a rookie filmmaker when he directed Maya, wants the audience to feel completely at ease around these characters. He spends so much time showing us the banalities of their home life, including watching them eat dinner together, tuck the kids in at night and put up with a constant barrage of lizards that seem to be attracted to their home. I’d describe the style of Maya as nice and steady. Singh is clearly trying to lull the viewer into a sense of comfort and he succeeds so well that when the horrifying truth is revealed, you feel like you’ve been betrayed by a trusted friend.
In fact, the movie may succeed a little too well at making you feel at ease. It’s by no means a boring film but I don’t think it needed to be 2 hours long. The first act feels a little aimless in terms of story content. It does a fine job establishing the movie’s characters and its world but there just isn’t much that happens. I’m also not sold on the replay value of Maya. There are plenty of movies that work perfectly the first time but leave you no desire to revisit and this may fall into that camp.
I don’t want to reveal the film’s secret but I give Singh and cinematographer Mark Lapwood a ton of credit for shooting its climax in a way that avoids being gratuitous or exploitative of its actors while also being striking enough to burn an image into my head I won’t likely forget. Suffice it to say that Sanjay’s actions at the end and his parents’ reaction to them is about as heartbreaking as cinema gets. Movies are, of course, a passive experience for the audience and the feeling of helplessness Singh leaves you with here is especially tough to digest.
When the dust settles and you’ve caught your breath, so many background elements of the plot suddenly come into sharp focus. Did the family’s housekeeper Ganesh (Mukesh Bhatt) have an altruistic reason for betraying their trust and blowing the money on drinks? Why does Singh make such a big show of how disgusted the adults are by harmless lizards? Why does the script go out of its way to show the village’s women as smart, thoughtful people who seem to be tougher than their male counterparts? As you think more about Maya, it become crystal clear how deliberate Singh’s storytelling was.
When the credits roll, Singh makes the message of his movie even more glaring, presenting statistics that urge the viewer — especially those in India — to open their eyes to the world around them. Criticizing religion and tradition is fertile but dangerous ground for any artist to tread and when I looked into Singh’s filmography following Maya, I was slightly surprised to see it bare, aside from one other movie in 2005.
Along with Singh, Lapwood and the entire cast, composers Manesh Judge and Noor Lodhi deserve a ton of credit for the success of this movie. Their score is so full of life and built on traditional Indian instruments that it immediately made me feel like I was in the characters’ world. Judge and Lodhi’s original music was the first thing that struck me as outstanding about Maya. It’s packed with gorgeous, sometimes haunting, pieces that accent the action perfectly, whether we’re following the kids as they play in the jungle or the family as they go on a road trip.
It’s interesting that Singh apparently stopped making movies so suddenly. Was he blacklisted for his bold message movie, or did he simply get out of show business? I wasn’t able to find out much about the director when I looked into him but his debut feature Maya will stand among my favorite foreign films for years to come.
Watch the trailer for Maya below.