By CASS CLARKE
Starring Madiha Hidayat, Ramsha Shaikh, Intezaar Fatima
Written and directed by K/XI
Bad Wolf Films
Written, directed, and edited by K/XI, MAYA tells a refreshingly unique jinn-based possession story rooted in Pakistani culture and the unyielding bond of sisterhood. Whereas most mainstream possession films revel in lurid gore and exploitation of its women leads, MAYA takes a grounded take on the subject that’s tenderly violent and tragic. Imagine a mix between A TALE OF TWO SISTERS and THE CHANGELING and you’ll have something close to the somber documentary-like style of K/XI’s debut feature horror film.
MAYA focuses on a teenage girl of the same name (Madiha Hidayat) who cannot remember her childhood. With the help of her adopted sister, Kalika (Ramsha Shaikh), Maya seeks to recover her lost memories – unaware of the horrors that this journey will bring. Both leads do an admirable job of portraying the fear around losing – or watching someone – lose their grip on reality. While the dialogue at times is a little too on the nose, Hidayat brings apt levels of vulnerability and drive to make her feel as scared as her character is.
The choice to give this film a grainy – and at times out of focus – lens makes the proceedings feel purposefully raw. But that works for the story it’s telling as it wants us to focus more on the scary and disorienting consequences of falling under a possessive force than building up to reveal a big monster.
Overall, its plot is simple, and therein lies its greatest strength: You feel like a witness to these events in the same way that Maya is of hers. K/XI never makes the narrative feel stalled to explain its supernatural elements. Instead, the descent into the unexplainable is not unlike a slow yet confident walk down a spiral staircase. Of course, it’ll end in mayhem but no step here is rushed nor feels out of place. Yes, it is cautious but once the ending arrives, it’s understood why it treaded so slowly and softly. However, the one downside to this approach is that it robs Maya of agency – a tricky pitfall to avoid when depicting a character dealing with mental illness and or possession. In some ways, Maya would have been more interesting if she was allowed to do more. Unlike the strong sense of self that Kalika has, Maya is too wispy of a character to solely center a film on – making it hard not to wonder how the possession would have played out if the sisters were in reversed roles.
The bustling sound of Kirachi’s streets and panning shots of market stalls give this film a genuine sense of place – and a welcomed one as it’s a location we rarely see spotlighted in cinema. Sound designer Tatsujiro Oto crafts an impeccable soundscape for this film filled with cackling demonic chattering and eerie tones.
Like THE OLD WAYS, MAYA brings a new perspective into the subgenre of possession stories that thankfully doesn’t highlight nor set up Catholicism as a saving force. The world is too large to make demons so predictable and monolithic, and MAYA will surely inspire others to widen this arena of horror for all.