maya written and directed by Digvijay Singh, produced by Dileep Singh Ratore and Emmanuel Pappas, with Nitya Shetty, Anant Nag and Mita Vasisht. 113 minutes. A Seville Pictures release. Opens Friday (April 5). For venues, times and review, see First-Run Movies, page 76. Rating: NNNN
you'll never forget maya. it's a film that leaves you in tears of rage. Director Digvijay Singh's first film, based on real-life events, recounts the story of 12-year-old, middle-class Maya (Nitya Shetty). She's a carefree child, but when she begins to menstruate, an ancient religious practice -- her "marriage" to the goddess Yellama -- is set in motion.
The ritual, which Maya doesn't know will take place, is performed at the village temple, whose priests take turns deflowering her while her family prepares a grand, celebratory feast.
Filmmaker Singh first read about Devadasism -- the religiously sanctioned consignment of girls to a lifetime of sexual slavery, performed by the Venkatasani and Jogini cults among others -- while working as an assistant director in Bombay.
"I was completely shocked and then went into a rage," says Singh during our interview at last year's Toronto International Film Festival, where Maya was named runner-up for the People's Choice Award. "The fact it happens in my own country was not a very comfortable thought.
"When I started to do research, I found it was far more prevalent than people think. It exists in little pockets in more than just one particular area, and there are regional variances to the practice. In some cases it's not the priest but the landlord who carries out the act, and there may be different gods involved.
"But the bottom line is it's the exploitation of a child, it's child abuse with religious sanctions, nothing but ritualized rape.
"Indian government agencies estimate that anywhere from 5,000 to 15,000 girls are dedicated to this practice every year," says Singh. "In a country of a billion people, that might seem like a very small percentage, but it's 5,000 to 15,000 too many."
Singh's greatest challenge was capturing the horror of the story without being sensational. He succeeds by allowing the sun-dappled shots of Maya running about the countryside to slowly give way to darker, more ominous shots of Maya indoors, waiting for the unknown.
It's a subtle strategy by a filmmaker with strong control over incendiary material.
"I had to be discreet. It was too easy to go for the big shock wave," notes Singh quietly. "I wanted the film to imitate Indian life. The pace of life in India trundles, it goes along until something spectacular happens to change that. I wanted my camera to catch that flow."
Not surprisingly, finding the money to make a movie like Maya wasn't easy for Singh and his producer, Emmanuel Pappas.
"People said they loved the script, told us we should be getting a cheque sometime soon and then they stopped returning our calls," recalls Singh.
"One person actually told me, "This film might be easier to fund if you put a white character in there, like a journalist travelling through India searching for her soul who chances upon this case and uses it as a way to redeem herself.'
"I'm thinking, "That's crazy.' First of all, you'd never find a white journalist anywhere near the places where this is going on. It's hard enough for Indian government officials who speak the language and look the same to slip in and try to solve the problem, so having Penelope Cruz suddenly turn up and make things all right is a joke." email@example.com ALSO OPENING: AMADEUS: DIRECTOR'S CUT -- BIG TROUBLE -- HIGH CRIMES -- NATIONAL LAMPOON'S VAN WILDER -- SUSPICIOUS RIVER For details, see reviews, page 76.