April 4, 2002 - The end of childhood

Digvijay Singh's Maya exposes a shameful practice


Starring Nitya Shetty, Anant Nag. Written and directed by Digvijay Singh. (STC) 103 min. Opens April 5.


Maya, the deceptively tranquil first feature by Indo-American filmmaker Digvijay Singh, doesn't have a story so much as one shocking event -- but the buildup to that event and its aftermath are explored so deftly that the lack of plot complications isn't an issue.

The first half of the film tracks a middle-class family in rural India as they enjoy a summer of mischief preceding a turning point in 12-year-old Maya's life. Maya (Nitya Shetty, a veteran of 16 films) lives with her cousin Sanjay (Nikhil Yadav) and his parents because her own family can't afford to raise her. The first half of the film lovingly captures the impish cousins' relationship as they steal candy, torment lizards and skip out on their punishments. Sanjay's parents are temperamental -- the kids are constantly slapped and told to shut up -- yet also indulgent. So far, the film could be set in the Bronx or Red Deer without losing too much in the cultural translation. Then Maya gets her first period, and an ominous cloud rolls across their lives.

Singh, a ponytailed 28-year-old who speaks as earnestly as he does rapidly, says he'd rather audiences not know exactly what happens to Maya before seeing the film. "Then the whole first half just flows," he explains during an interview at the 2001 Toronto International Film Festival. "It's like there's this nice little happy film that's playing out in this beautiful countryside and then -- smack! Suddenly before Maya knows it, something's happening to her, which is pretty much how I wanted it to come upon the audience too."

Though this approach creates bone-chilling suspense in the second half of the film, Singh doesn't feel he's exploiting Maya's situation for dramatic effect. Rather, he says he wants the audience to go on the same emotional journey as Maya so they can experience the horrors of her ordeal first-hand.

The film ends with a written message letting viewers know that the ritual abuse Maya suffers is neither fictitious nor isolated. Singh blanches at the suggestion that Maya is a "message film" ("I actually find the label a little pretentious," he demurs), but acknowledges that his inspiration for making the film was to raise awareness about what 5,000 to 15,000 girls go through in pockets of India every year.

"I was working as an assistant director in Bombay, and I was reading the paper in the morning and I chanced upon an article that spoke of this practice," he says. "I was absolutely shocked. And all of a sudden I was very angry." He told his friends about his discovery. "They were like, 'This happens?' And then the question was 'Does it still happen?'" Much to Singh's embarrassment and disgust, his research proved that the practice persists under a veil of religious sanction and secrecy.

"The practice obviously is banned in India," he says. "But this is not something that is going to change through legislation. You have to change people's mindsets. Things don't change by throwing 25 people in jail."

Singh hopes that Maya gets released in India so that the mostly illiterate poor classes can learn about what's happening among them. However, he deliberately set his story in a middle-class family to force Western audiences to relate to it, too. "I didn't want the whole thing to be dismissed as 'Oh, it's OK, it happens to lower-class people, it happens in some far-off country. Bottom line, you're talking about child abuse. That's a lot wider."

The Globe and Mail and members of the Indo-Canadian community have protested Singh's strategy, charging that he's distorted the facts about who perpetrates this practice to serve his own ends. Singh maintains that his goal was never to slander the people of India, but knows he's taken some major risks. "There will always be people who will not like the film and who are going to be very, very pissed off with me. I completely understand that," he sighs.

The character of Sanjay may temper criticism of the film by showing that at least one person close to Maya rebels against what happens to her. "To some degree, he is the voice of me," Singh admits. Sanjay is also the voice of reason in a community that has been conditioned by blind faith. "In some ways, the older we get, the more insecure we get. Sanjay's very secure in his beliefs. He doesn't even completely comprehend what's wrong, but he knows it's wrong."

Whether Sanjay grows up to become like the other adults is a question Singh doesn't dare answer. "You never know. That's the twisted part," he says.

Singh's interest in children became more than just political over the course of making the film. "I learned that I love children far more than I thought before," he says. "Not that I'll go outside and see children and think, 'Oh what a sweet child.'

"But with the children on the set, I had to stop myself from being too affectionate with them. Because sometimes you have to get a serious performance out of them, and when they know that you love them, they can twist you around, and you're like, 'Aww.' They were very mischievous."



The hot-button issue in Maya is the ritual abuse the central character suffers at the end, but throughout the film children are treated in a way that Westerners might consider abusive. Singh believes that yelling and hitting are a way of life for Indian families.

"I'm not saying they're going and beating their children senseless, but there is a greater acceptance of corporal punishment. When I was growing up, I went to a Jesuit school, and I had a pretty good childhood. We had a great education system, but our principal used to have canes in his office. Getting caned was quite commonplace." Singh hopes to raise his own children differently someday. "I don't think I'd hit my child, and I don't think I would allow anyone else to hit my child. But children can also get very trying." KL





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