By LISA TSERING - India-West Staff Reporter
LOS ANGELES — The ritual sexual abuse of young girls in India is the topic of Maya, a devastating new film from first-time director Dijvijay Singh.
Maya screened last week at the Regus London Film Festival, and the film has gotten raves at film festivals in Montreal, Vancouver, Chicago and Toronto for its unsparing depiction of India’s little-understood devadasi tradition.
Twelve-year-old Maya (Nitya Shetty) lives on the outskirts of Hyderabad* with her middle class family — her father, Arun (Anand Nag); mother Lakshmi (Mita Vashist); and 11-year-old cousin Sanjay (Nikhil Yadav), her constant companion for nonstop childish pranks and mischief.
The day that Maya reaches puberty, though, her childish fun comes to an abrupt end as 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 the most astrologically auspicious date for her ceremony — although the village women shoot each other a few pained glances. 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 waiting priests awaits as a huge, wooden door is closed behind her.
Digvijay Singh and Maya’s producers, Dileep Singh Rathore and Emmanuel Pappas, have been working on the film for the past five years and are finally getting the attention and rewards they so rightly deserve. The subject matter is never made titillating, nor is it glossed over.
“The character of Maya is not based on any one girl’s story,” Rathore told India-West after a recent screening of the film. “Reports from nongovernmental organizations state that until recently, as many as 15,000 girls were believed to be used as devadasis” in Andhra Pradesh, Orissa and Karnataka.
In villages deep in rural India, young girls are still “dedicated to God,” namely, given to temple priests, as brides as part of the devadasi tradition.
Although outlawed in India, the devadasi tradition persists, primarily among the dalit community.
A report quoted by Human Rights Watch states that “Thousands of untouchable female children (between 6 and 8 years) are forced to become maidens of God, (Devadasis or Jogins) ... They are taken from their families, never to see them again. They are later raped by the temple priest and finally auctioned secretly into prostitution and ultimately die from AIDS.” In the film’s press materials, the filmmakers include links to NGO Web sites documenting the reach of this specialized type of abuse.
Rathore, a cousin of Singh’s, worked as a coordinator in Mumbai for numerous Kapoor family productions before working as an independent line producer for a number of foreign films in India, including City of Joy and The Deceivers (a 1988 film starring Pierce Brosnan).
Singh, too, had worked as an assistant director on Indian film and television productions and TV commercials before moving to Los Angeles to enter the filmmaking program at UCLA. The two teamed up with Emmanuel Pappas, also a filmmaking student at UCLA, to form Kundalini Pictures, their production company based in Los Angeles.
The film was shot in locations in the Telangana district of Andhra Pradesh, and some scenes were even shot in a temple where the ritual is said to have taken place*1.
Actress Nitya Shetty, at age 10 already a veteran of 16 films, has acted since she was five in Telugu films, TV commercials and serials. In 1999, the state of Andhra Pradesh honored her with an award for Best Child Actor for her work in the film Channi Channi Asa, and she appears in the recent hit film Devadu.
Mita Vashisht has appeared in more than 20 films, including Taal and Dil Se; and Anand Nag was worked with Shashi Kapoor, Rekha and Shabana Azmi in a career spanning 30 years and 150 films.
The producers of Maya are currently working with a distributor to bring the film to a wider audience; till now, it has only been seen at festivals.
By setting the story in a middle class household, it makes it easier for viewers to relate to the characters and harder for them to dismiss what happens as some obscure Third World ritual, said Rathore.
The sheer ordinariness of Maya’s ritual — its unquestioned acceptance in the community and the casual attitude with which the villagers feast while she screams from inside the temple — give the film a terrifying edge.
But the film goes deeper than simply chronicling a crime of exploitation. Cinematographer Mark Lapwood uses long, languid shots that draw out the day-to-day tedium of small town life, and Manesh Judge’s haunting music enhances the entire work. Maya presents an ugly scenario with surprising beauty and subtlety.
Some viewers have criticized Maya for promoting an unflattering image of India, but Rathore disagrees. “I don’t think that is the case,” he told India-West. “Our film does not describe the whole population of the country.
“This is a practice which has been banned by the Indian government. It’s not appreciated by anyone in India.
“Nevertheless, it is a practice that still happens.”
* The girl in the film "MAYA" does not live in the outskirts of Hyderabad.
*1 The Temple shown in the film is not an actual temple where these practices take place.