maya (2002)

director: digvijay singh

nitya shetty, nikhil yadav, anant nag, mita vasisht

For most of the first half of Digvijay Singh's Maya, it's possible to imagine that we're watching a quaint film about life in rural India, in that most hoary of genres -- the "coming of age" film.

Twelve-year old Maya (Nitya Shetty)-, living with her rich aunt and uncle on the outskirts of Hyderabad, has had her first period, and while she doesn't feel particularly changed, it has galvanized the adults around her, who have thrown themselves into making preparations for a big celebration in her home village. 

It has also driven the beginning of a wedge between her and her cousin Sanjay (Nikhil Yadav), her constant companion for years. He seems to sense a threat to Maya before she does, and constantly imagines some kind of escape, without quite knowing how, or where, or why. When they travel to Maya's village, the threat is personified by the apparently kindly village priest who'll be performing Maya's ceremony, a cheerful yet sickly man with a faint but palpable air of the sinister.

Sanjay's instincts are correct. Maya is to become the victim of a ritual rape performed in rural areas around India, despite official sanction, fines and imprisonment. This quasi-religious child abuse, the filmmakers assert, is not some local custom to be treated with dismayed respect, or some condescending liberal fear of "cultural correctness". It's wrong, and the devastating effect it has on Maya is made wrenchingly apparent. 

Maya is a message film, albeit a skillful one, and it successfully prepares us for the brutality of the little girl's rape by lulling the audience into a complacent frame of mind, through Singh's altogether pleasant evocation of the mesmerizing banality of rural life. It would probably be best to see Maya without knowing what the film has in store for its protagonist -- or its audience -- which makes any review of the film effectively a warning.