When reviewing Strawberry last week, I wondered how long we’d have to wait to see an inventive horror film again. Well, the answer, it turns out, is just a week. Maya is an exercise in both horror and mise en abyme. It’s one of those rare Tamil films, like Uttama Villain , that you can talk so much about on your way back home. I’m glad I caught it in Devi Paradise; the long, spiral pathway on the way back provided plenty of time in which to reflect on the story. It’s not a perfect one (perfect stories, among other things, are those that can only happen when they do; you’re not at all sure why the big reveal in Maya didn’t occur earlier in the protagonist’s life), but still complex enough to be admired. At a time when horror films are a dime a dozen, and intent only on generating easy laughs, it’s a relief to see Maya stray. Director Ashwin Saravanan is content with telling you an interesting story, and with the exception of a rather off-key background song, he does so without distractions.
The film alternates between two stories (one shown in black and white, and the other in colour): One’s about Vasanth (Aari), an artist, who learns about a forest called Mayavanam, and how it was once home to a mental asylum, in which patients — one among them, Maya Mathews — were used as guinea pigs for horrific scientific experiment; and the other’s about Apsara (Nayanthara), an orphan mother of a one-year-old baby, and an actress struggling to make ends meet. As is the case with such films, both stories eventually converge at a point.
Right at the very beginning, there’s a scene that’s constructed very differently from what we are usually used to seeing. Apsara, through her friend (Lakshmi Priyaa), gets an opportunity to show her acting mettle to the director of a horror film. The director tells her that the situation is about a pregnant woman poisoning her husband after learning about his infidelity. While another movie would probably have had Apsara crying her heart out or making a spiteful speech upon the body of her husband, she underplays it; and not unconvincingly as Siddharth does in Kaaviya Thalaivan in a similar scene. Apsara radiates gloom throughout the film, and is key in retaining the sombre atmosphere throughout the film.
As you will probably expect, there are plenty of jump scares. But I enjoyed how Ashwin plays with your mind, as good horror films do. There’s a scene in which Apsara slowly walks to the kitchen — that laborious walk of a struggling mother — and opens a water bottle. There’s almost no music in the background. After drinking some water, she closes the bottle. She then walks towards the bedroom, in which Meera (her baby) is sleeping. It all happens unhurriedly; you are allowed plenty of time to be distracted by the environment, by visuals like Apsara’s shadow on the wall. All the while, you’re bracing for the big scare — a cat falling from nowhere, a vessel crashing down, something. And nothing happens. I loved that. In another scene, he uses the operatic end of Rahman’s ‘Konjam Nilavu’ to deliver the scare. You can’t even protest because it wasn’t planted; just atmospheric.
However, such moments, that don’t really amount to much in the bigger scheme of things, are one too many. Halfway in, you’re not really sure where the film is going, because there’s little urgency in moving the story forward. A case in point is the graveyard scene at the end that goes on and on until it finally culminates in the whole point of the film. There are needless deaths of people who you don’t care about at all. I found myself thinking about the scene in Wanted in which Angelina Jolie curls a bullet through the heads of all her enemies. Something like that, if done by the ghost, could have really quickened matters up.
It’s not among the best Tamil horror films, but nevertheless, is better than the masala horror films that we have been subjected to recently. It’s not that Maya doesn’t use the horror cliches; it does. White eyes, sudden loud music, gloomy graveyard, creepy wind-up doll, mental asylum… they’re all there, but Maya is also smart enough to realise that the fear lies in the unknown. And so, the ghost’s face is never really shown until the very end. Another eager debutant director would have thrown a maggot-ridden, scarred, pus-filled, bloodied face at you. Ashwin doesn’t. He wants you to imagine the face. He doesn’t really spoonfeed the story either because he wants you to figure things out. And how many directors can we say that about?