TIMES NEWS NETWORK [ SATURDAY, JUNE 15, 2002 11:01:25 PM ]
He’s been acclaimed around the world for taking one of India’s ugliest secrets and turning it into one of the most beautiful films of the year.
But Los Angeles-based director Digvijay Singh isn’t pleased at all. In fact, he’s fuming — at the Indian censor board for refusing to clear the film.
"We thought we might run into the censors, yes," he says, "but we never expected to have it banned outright."
Twenty-nine-year-old Singh’s debut feature film, Maya, depicts the ritualistic sexual abuse of young girls in India’s devadasi tradition, and will be released in the US this month.
"I saw a story in the newspaper over five years ago, describing the practice in modern rural India," he recalls. "When I read it, I felt such rage; I felt we were stuck in the sixth century. I was embarrassed and angry that this could happen in my country."
The newspaper story told of the unlawful ritualistic rape of a prepubescent girl by a village Hindu priest, and the acceptance — bordering on pride — of her family in the Telangana region of Andhra Pradesh as they and the village encouraged the abuse to continue.
Singh’s research revealed that as many as 15,000 girls in India are "dedicated to God" in this way every year.
"My first reaction was, ‘Is this true? Does this still go on?’"
In his film, Singh tackles the subject with sensitivity sharpened by such an unsparing awareness that to expect a happy ending is to expect too much.
Maya got a standing ovation at Cannes last year and rave reviews from critics and audiences at film festivals in Toronto, Montreal and across the US.
The film (and its soundtrack, by Manesh Judge) has won numerous audience awards at the festivals.
Twelve-year-old Maya (Nitya Shetty) lives in a small South Indian town with her middle class family — her father, Arun (Ananth Nag); mother Lakshmi (Mita Vashist); and 11-year-old cousin Sanjay (Nikhil Yadav), her constant companion for non-stop childish pranks and mischief.
The day Maya reaches puberty, relatives start planning for the biggest event of the young girl’s life: a feast and ceremony to dedicate her to the goddess Yellamma.
Maya doesn’t understand why the grownups seem to be talking in code, and why such care is being taken to choose just the right sari and an astrologically auspicious date for her ceremony.
Like a good, obedient daughter, she silently complies, up to the moment she is led into a dark room in the temple where a group of priests await as a huge, wooden door is closed behind her. It’s a bone-chilling cinematic moment.
"I deliberately set the story in a middle-class family as I didn’t want people to think that this exploitation only takes place in remote, illiterate villages," says Singh.
"The middle class is now saying, ‘Why was this film made?’ I say, "Because it happens."
It took five years for Singh and his producing partners, Dileep Singh Rathore and Emmanuel Pappas, to garner the funds for the film.
Raising more than a million dollars to make the film was an enormous challenge, says Singh. "One would-be investor suggested we write in a white character who would come in and rescue Maya!" laughs the Jamshedpur-born and Mumbai-educated director, wryly.
Singh studied economics and sociology at St Xavier’s, Mumbai. But he loved writing and putting together drama pieces, so he got a job working on advertisements with Durga Khote Productions in Mumbai, and learned everything from direction to production.
He went to Los Angeles to enter the filmmaking program at UCLA, where he met Rathore. The two teamed up with Emmanuel Pappas, also a filmmaking student at UCLA, to form Kundalini Pictures, their production company.
Now they have two other films in the pipeline.
This promising young director doesn’t want to be pigeonholed. "I don’t want to be labelled just a ‘controversial’ filmmaker because of this film," says Singh.
"And I certainly don’t want people to come see it just because it was banned. It’s not a film for voyeurs. I don’t even care if Maya makes money or not. I just want people to see it."