‘Maya’ is sincere, unsettling and atmospheric – a film where craft and art come together beautifully…

…writes Mani Prabhu

No Spoilers Ahead…

When was the last time you walked out of a horror film, amazed and affected? Not just spooked and entertained, but truly awestruck. Well, having been bombarded with more than the average amount of films centering on spirits, possessions, paranormal occurrences and exorcisms (most of them turning out to be mere excuses to unleash some vile humor, loads of toothless pandering and the most unimaginative of boo moments), your memory lapse in this regard is probably justified. After the pretty impressive ‘Demonte Colony’, which again had its share of compromises,  director Ashwin Saravanan makes you hopelessly fall in love with the supernatural thriller genre, with his debut film ‘Maya’.

So, how does Ashwin manage to do it? He creates interesting characters, gives each one of them an eerie character arc and focuses on telling a story rather than resorting to a tedious parade of jump scares and over-dramatization. He seems to think ‘film’ in every frame, which is evident in the way; he uses the surroundings and the most mundane of props to create bewitching context and mood. Consider for instance the scene when Rahman’s ‘Chandralekha’ plays in the background, and a particular poster gets mysteriously torn. With sequences like this, he manages to sustain a convincingly spine-chilling atmosphere by gently playing around with the grammar rules of the genre, not completely breaking any of them for the audience to feel cheated, but tweaking them enough to keep the proceedings edgy. He makes us empathize with the characters, both living and dead; their failures, their frustrations, their vulnerabilities, their survival instincts – everything is bloody real, denying you the comfort zone of being scared without the need to care for the person onscreen.

The basic premise about ‘life after death’ is not totally groundbreaking. But given the kind of film that Aswin is making, it’s all about execution, and he seems to clearly understand it. The writing and the treatment in many instances are strikingly clever, never at any point, disrespecting the intelligence of the audience. Visual cues are strewn all over. But, instead of spoon feeding them, Ashwin toys around with you, dragging you into the middle of his scene and making you walk with the characters. Spirits do have a form, but there is also an emphasis on the unseen, which makes you imagine scarier things, petrified at what might have been! Cinematographer Sathyan’s unsettlingly creative shots and in general, the team’s willingness to let the scene linger for a few extra moments, helps build the tension further. Sathyan, in particular, has a field day experimenting with angles and lighting, usually considered alien to our industry.

The approach, Ashwin takes to narrate his conflict is also commendable. The film begins with a dual narrative with two sets of characters in different colour tones, and when eventually these two stories merge out of necessity, we are in for a rude shock. But what sometimes works in its favour and sometimes doesn’t, is that ‘Maya’ doesn’t rush anything. The first hour lays the base for the second half. It had to take the time to sculpt and stage its terror, which it eventually does with flair. The snowball effect of ghostly appearances; starting off small and growing in strength and frequency, works well in raising the stakes.  Things seem to get repetitive sometimes, but they are rewarded with some stunning exposition.

And by the time, the show down starts in the second half, we are irreversibly hooked at an emotional level. What Ashwin does with this part, where the thin line between cinema as a medium and audience as a passive onlooker blurs, is a real tribute to old-school haunted horror, with well-worn cliches beautifully reinvented to hold our attention. Utilizing long, unbroken shots and brilliant cuts, he plays around with a flash light and pitch darkness, setting up disturbing and visually stunning confrontations. He doesn’t oversell a visual image; both the doll and the stretcher are kept in check, but a couple of sequences seem a little drawn out. Ron Ethan’s musical score makes you live in fear of what’s coming, be it the ominous sound cues, or cleverly-timed moments of hushed silence. Nayanthara comes out with a natural performance in probably the boldest decision of her career, while Lakshmi Priya is the one who impresses more with her histrionics.

A surprisingly well written and filmed piece of supernatural horror, ‘Maya’ is sincere, unsettling and atmospheric – a film where craft and art come together.  Ashwin Saravanan truly hits it out of the park in his debut, doing the atmospheric horror genre proud with his remarkable story telling skills and passion for cinema. A ‘filmmaker’ is born.