India/USA 2001
director/script : Digvijay Singh
cinematography : Mark Lapwood
editing : Bridget Lyon
music : Manesh Judge, Noorullah Lodhi
lead actors : Nitya Shetty, Nikhil Yadav, Anant Nag, Mita Vasisht
113 minutes

The first hour of Maya is a sunnily upbeat chronicle of Indian rural childhood, with the 12-year-old title character (Shetty) enjoying a raucuous but idyllic time living with her aunt (Vasisht) and uncle (Nag), playing with her younger cousin Sanjay (Yadav). But when Maya has her first period, it sets off a chain of events which build to one of the most harrowingly powerful sequences in recent cinema. This is a film about the ritual abuse of children, but even if viewers are aware of this beforehand, the nature of what actually happens to Maya – or, more precisely, is implied by the discreet director – will surely leave most in a state of numbed outrage.

The film opens with a title card informing us that what we’re about to see ‘is based on real practices,’ and while the abuse-ritual – euphimistically referred to as the ‘prayer ceremony’ by adults – is supposedly forbidden, it does apparently continue to be practised. Hopefully Maya will make a contribution to changing this astonishing state of affairs – it’s an accessible, often beautiful film made by a partially Western team and with ‘export’ sensibilities in mind.

The real question posed by Maya, however, is why such difficult subjects are so rarely tackled by the Indian film industry. ‘Bollywood’ may be more fashionable than ever in the wake of Lagaan and Asoka, but surely it’s time for some writers and directors to move away from the standard historical/romantic boy-meets-girl spectaculars and thus drag Bollywood out of its perpetual adolescence. Of course, it’s up to distributors to find a market for the more challenging Asian films – Asoka director Santosh Sivan’s terrific, controversial The Terrorist only secured western screenings thanks to the efforts of John Malkovich.

Maya‘s subject matter means it deserves at least as wide a release, even if, taken purely as a piece of film-making, it’s hardly groundbreaking work. But the low-key, unshowy approach is just right for the material: this is a thoroughly convincing family, and the children aren’t sentimentalised in any way – Maya’s brother Guri (Bhushan Dhupkar) is, in fact, a thoroughly brattish little sod. Maya isn’t much different, but because she’s female she’s forced to ‘grow up’ overnight. Hardly anything is explained to her, not that any explanation would prepare her for the terrible ordeal she’s destined to endure. Her cousin Sanjay sounds a much-needed note of optimism when he tells her at the end, “This too will pass.” Let’s hope he’s right.

27th October, 2001
(seen Oct-26-01, National Film Theatre – London Film Festival)

by Neil Young