November 20, 2002 - India's cage of innocence

Publication date: 11/20/2002


Starring Nitya Shetty, Nikhil Yadav, Anant Nag, Mita Vasisht; directed by Digvijay Singh; written Emmanuel Pappas and Singh. In Hindi with English subtitles. Not rated. India's cage of innocence

BY JEFFREY M. ANDERSON Of The Examiner Staff

With colorful, musical Bollywood films surging in popularity here in the States, it's only reasonable to expect to see more and more imports from India. But don't expect them all to make you happy.

Remember that the Indian film industry has two sides: the entertaining Bollywood productions like the recent "Lagaan" and the gritty art-house side, most famously represented by Satyajit Ray's Apu Trilogy: "Pather Panchali" (1955), "Aparajito" (1956) and "The World of Apu" (1959).

The new film "Maya," opening today at the Roxie for a week's run, falls squarely in the latter category. But it contains such a pile driver gut-punch that it makes Ray's work look like wistful little poems.

As directed by first-timer Digvijay Singh (not to be confused with golfer Vijay Singh), "Maya" falls prey to a few storytelling contrivances, most obviously at the beginning and end, but cleverly keeps most of its cards hidden until the crucial moment.

The title character, 12-year-old Maya (Nitya Shetty), lives with her wealthy aunt and uncle and gets along well with her slightly younger cousin/foster brother Sanjay (Nikhil Yadav). Together they love to conspire against adults for their own pleasure, like devising a little scheme to obtain a bagful of free candy.

Everything comes to a halt when Maya gets her first period and her aunt and uncle begin preparing for an elaborate and religious ceremony and feast for her coming-of-age. No one seems very happy about this, and director Singh keeps a kind of frayed nerve feel over the preparations.

Whenever Maya wants to go play, the answer is no. She must be fitted for a dress, or some other adult-oriented activity. Finally the big day comes and Maya is dragged screaming into a dark temple by four priests. Sanjay bangs at the door but to no avail.

The priests take turns raping the poor girl, and her cries become increasingly weary -- but no less pained. Afterward, the priests feast and boast to Maya's foster father about how promising she is.

Singh respectably only shows views of legs and feet or Maya's blurry POV of the ceiling. But the scene works its horror completely. The film leaves off with a few title cards explaining that this so-called "religious" ceremony is performed anywhere from 5,000 to 15,000 times a year.

Though he's chosen strong material, Singh's inexperience shows through a few times. He begins his film with a flash-forward of Sanjay banging on the door, letting us know early that something will go wrong; but that's an amateur device, and one that's surfaced in at least five films in the last two months. He also drops the tired phrase "this, too, shall pass" early in the story and prompts us to remember it so that he can use it again at the end.

Singh shoots in a realistic, rather pedestrian manner, but he keeps the film's emotions riding high, focusing on Sanjay and the sickening betrayal he feels from both the adults and from Maya.

And despite the young director's few missteps, the film's power is undeniable. "Maya" leaves us angry, horrified and deflated.

When young Sanjay steals a bowl of raw chicken parts and hurls it at the priest responsible for Maya's pain, you root for him, hoping that some icky pice of meat will stick to the priest for life. But when Sanjay is punished for his deed, we realize how small each of us is standing up to the great big world.

San Francisco Examiner




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