Much has been made of the ascendance of the India-exported "Bollywood" style films in Hollywood – 2001's Moulin Rouge certainly had elements of "Bollywood" as did 2002's The Guru and this year's Bride and Prejudice. Lush and exotic, these American films, while not strictly "Bollywood," synthesize the sensory overload that comes from watching, say, Amar Akbar Anthony or Devdas. Director Digivijay Singh's quietly devastating Maya is the antithesis of a sprightly, Technicolor "Bollywood" musical; objective, grounded with a verite feel and deeply moving, this tale of a young girl's shattered innocence will haunt you long after the final frames.
The global NGO (non-governmental organizations associated with the United Nations) estimates that roughly 15,000 adolescent Indian girls are forced to participate in some form of ritual rape every year; a long-held tradition that's been outlawed by the Indian government but still practiced in some of the more remote areas of the country. There are numerous variations on the practice and Maya synthesizes three of them (Devdasi, Jogini and Anang Dana Pratana, according to a title card preceding the end credits) into one ceremony. Much like the harrowing 2003 film Moolaade, which examined the practice of adolescent female genital mutilation in Africa, this film is both a call to arms for human rights and a fascinating dissection of a culture that essentially openly promotes child abuse half a world away.
Starring the precocious Nitya Shetty as the title character, the film unfolds almost like a documentary in its opening minutes. Living with her aunt Lakshmi (Mita Vasisht), her uncle Arun (Anant Nag) and her cousin Sanjay (Nikhil Yadav), Maya's existence is one of happiness and occasional mischief – until one night, upon slipping out to use the bathroom, she inadvertently reveals that she's begun menstruating. After reuniting with her father, mother and brother, Maya's family immediately begins making plans for a celebratory feast as well as a ritual with some local priests that neither Maya or her cousin can fully comprehend.
While the first hour of Maya is relatively light-hearted and engaging, the final 40 minutes are brutal. The rape sequence (Maya is between 12 and 13 years old) isn't explicitly depicted, but the expressionistic way in which it's handled still thoroughly disturbs. Compounding the horrifying nature of the ritual is the casual indifference with which Maya's family and even the priests treat it; as the film opens (and again towards the conclusion), Sanjay pounds upon the temple's doors, begging for his screaming cousin to be released, only to be snatched up by his father and soundly chastised. The lack of emotion is chilling. By allowing his audience to become familiar with and fond of Maya in the film's opening hour, the shock and horror Singh elicits with the ceremony is that much greater; I was thoroughly numb by the time the final scene faded – and this is coming from someone who could somewhat stomach the excruciating sequence of children maiming each other in Fernando Meirelles' City of God.
But though some may cry exploitation – I feel as though it's a necessary evil to depict this Indian slice of life. Unflinching and distressing, certainly but no less acceptable simply because it isn't familiar; lest there be confusion, let me be clear. I'm in no way condoning this practice. It's heinous and perpetuates a cycle of violence (verbal, physical or sexual) that clears manifests itself throughout Maya - witness the way the children are disciplined or the veiled contempt with which the women are viewed by their husbands. What Americans view as cruelty is simply a way of life for natives of India. Does that make it right? Not necessarily, but sometimes the most unpleasant images imaginable are needed so that those on the outside can truly see.
Maya looks positively gorgeous in this 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer – the dusty earth provides a nice contrast for the brightly colored saris the women in the film wear; with no bleeding and no edge enhancement, the rainbow of colors on display here really pop. Clean and free of grain or dirt, Maya provides a near-flawless window into a world so very far removed from our own.
Presented in Dolby 2.0 stereo in its native Hindi, Maya generally sounds fine save for some distortion on the higher end. Occasionally the dialogue will get slightly blown out, but it's infrequent and passes quickly. Optional English subtitles are available, but unless your Hindi is up to snuff, you'll probably want them enabled.
Home Vision Entertainment doesn't provide very many extras that help contextualize Maya, save for an insert containing an informative but all too brief essay by writer Lisa Tsering of the newsweekly India-West. Included on the disc is a non-anamorphic widescreen trailer for the film, which runs one minute, 50 seconds. The trailer's image is quite soft and shows a lot of damage. The only other extra is a 20 image photo gallery with shots of the cast and crew on location near Hyderabad City in the state of Andhra Pradesh, India.
A sobering look at an outlawed practice that irrevocably alters lives, Maya is an invaluable piece of social archaeology. A vibrant film that digs in from the get-go, it's a slow burn nightmare that brings attention to a part of the world that's all too often out of our field of vision. Maya is powerful filmmaking that fans of world cinema as well as those who are scared off by subtitles should check out. Recommended.