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The Religious Sanction of India's Gang-rape Practices
Dennis Grunes

The following review of a 2001 film gives us a clear idea as to the underpinnings of India's mistreatment of women and the origin of the widely prevalent gang-rape of women that pervades Indian society today. It's a must-see film, excellently made though deeply troubling: it reveals how pre-historic Hindu religious practices continue to corrupt and contaminate Indian society today.

MAYA, a Film by Digvijay Singh, 2001

A pre-teen stands in front of a locked door, from behind which blood-curdling screams emerge; he is pounding on the door, shouting, “Let me in!”

A grown-up assures him that the one screaming is not at all being hurt, and the concerned boy is physically punished for the fuss he is making.

Thus begins Maya, a superlative Hindi film in which this initial scene is either the boy’s nightmarish premonition or a real event to which the film will return in due course.

What is happening behind the door?

Officially it is forbidden, but in remote spots of rural India a certain practice still exists. When a girl has started to menstruate, there is a “prayer ceremony” for her, officiated by a pujari, a Hindu priest, at which she is ritually raped by a series of elders. The ceremony commemorates her passage into womanhood.

This is what happens to 12-year-old Maya.

From India and the U.S., Maya was written by the film’s director, 28-year-old Digvijay Singh and Emmanuel Pappas.

Perhaps the U.S. participation has in this instance helped turn Hindi cinema away from the self-indulgent escapism and excesses of Bollywood and toward social realities. Regardless, this is a spare, exceptionally fine and compelling film that manages to avoid even a second of exploitation despite such risky material. One might wish that the film had related the ceremonial practice of rape to the broader issue of female vulnerability in India; but Digvijay Singh may have hoped that his film would inspire others on similar themes.

The film’s first movement surveys the mischief of cousins Sanjay and Maya, who is living with Sanjay’s family while her mother deals with her latest pregnancy. Sanjay’s father is lenient, not strict, which makes all the more horrifying the corporal punishment that he inflicts on Sanjay on three occasions after the boy has innocently adopted the role of Maya’s protector -- at which he inevitably fails, which is part of the tragedy of Maya.

Another part of the tragedy is that the grown women, including Sanjay’s exceptionally smart mother, who it is implied have themselves gone through the “prayer ceremony,” see nothing wrong with it.

But against the notion that the tradition is harmless the film sets a symbolical infestation of lizards -- survivors of pre-history. Certain unquestioned traditions, no matter how monstrous, carry their own aura of necessity in the continuity of culture, religious or otherwise.

Maya is prepared for the ceremony by being made exceptionally beautiful, as one might prepare a corpse for burial.

Throughout, the child has no idea what is going to happen to her. Digvijay Singh takes us “behind the door,” but uses such compositional and framing techniques as to convey the horror of the event without exactly simulating it. We see Maya’s bare legs dangling fairly high above the floor -- this is all of Maya that we see -- and must imagine what we cannot see that is compatible with such a view. (Has the child been put into some kind of harness?)

One by one, a pair of naked male legs confront Maya’s and, we imagine, each of the men perpetrates rape; Digvijay Singh shows three such events, although we understand from the greater number of elders who later emerge with Maya that Maya was raped more than thrice. We never see any genitalia -- just legs, and this visual procedure underscores the level of dissociation involved, including on the victim’s part, as well as the dehumanization.

During the ceremony, Digvijay Singh uses the camera to survey the men’s neatly folded outfits on the floor -- a grisly touch of contrast, given the violations being perpetrated, the chaos of torture that Maya endures.

After the ceremony, there are food and festivities (except that Maya herself is too sick to eat), everyone congratulates the priest, who assures Maya’s father that God blesses his daughter.

Poignantly impotent, Sanjay assaults the doorway of the pujari’s home.

None are so blind as those who will not see.

Erstwhile critic Dita Bhargava has thus written: “[T]his film puts India and ancient hindu practices in an embarrassing, disgusting, and false light . . . The footnotes at the end of the movie reveal that this ritual is practiced on 5000-15,000 wom[e]n a year. I am not sure [of] the validity of this fact at all[,] but let[’]s put this claim in perspective. Out of a population of over a billion, 10,000 people is 0.001 percent! There are sick and twisted practices that occur to girls, boys, men, women and animals all over the world in strange obscure cults and organizations. To make a movie out of something that is not part of any hindu text or teaching and portray it as an ancient hindu ritual is very disappointing and insulting.”

Let us set aside the inaccuracy of Bhargava’s statistical analysis, which fails to take into account that the number of victims expands annually; let us accept this fractured math.

A mere 10,000 people?

But the number comprises actual individuals -- each one a living, breathing, feeling girl.

Justice Brandeis: “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”

December 30, 2012


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