Synopsis: An artist realizes that the story that he is illustrating, about a ghost who was an inmate of an asylum in a forest, could be real. Meanwhile, an aspiring actress takes up a challenge to watch a horror film all alone in the theatre at night. How are these storylines connected?
Review: Maya begins in classic horror movie fashion. Vasanth Sridhar, an artist, tells his friend about the story he is illustrating for — a ghost story from the past involving an inmate in a mental asylum located inside Mayavanam, a forest. He tells how the ghost, Maya, haunts people who call her out and as the disbelieving friend does so to prove that it's all fiction, we see a shadowy figure. We are then told this was a prank but later, a character points out to a smoky form in the video sending a chill down our spine. The action then cuts to Apsara, an aspiring actress and a single mom, who is under financial trouble. She decides to take up the challenge thrown by the director of a new horror film to watch it all alone in a theatre at night. This, despite a distributor dying mysteriously after trying to do the same! Ashwin Saravanan skillfully connects these stories and when we get the revelation on who the ghost actually is and what it is after, it brings a lump to our throats.
Nayanthara has been Maya's biggest calling card but the actress is both a plus and a minus to the film. There is no doubt that she gives it the star wattage needed to create a buzz around the film and make people want to watch it, but her performance is a bland, generic one (even when her character is in a life-threatening situation, her face remains blank and made up) that does nothing to enhance the inherent drama in the script. Replace her with another star and the film will remain as effective as it is now. This is especially felt in the final portions — she makes the audience feel sympathetic towards the character, but a better actress would have made the audience feel they have a connection with the character. The director also relies too much on jump scares and cliched horror tropes (a ghost with long-flowing hair, headless torso and so on) and these become predictable after some time. The stretch in the forest in the second half, especially, feels overlong and repetitive after a point. The film is also overtly art directed (Ramalingam) — the arty-chic feel of Vasanth's flat or the poster-filled walls of Apsara's house never give the feel of real places and resemble something straight out of TV commercials. The score (Ron Yohaan), which constantly keys in how we should be feeling, takes away the impact of a few scenes and a minimalist score would have worked even better.
But these are minor quibbles and the film is otherwise technically competent. The cinematography (Sathyan Sooryan) superbly captures the haunting shadows that trees cast in the night. One of the plots is in black and white while the other is in colour and even though the scenes play out paralley, the nifty editing (TS Suresh) ensures that it is seemless on screen. The sound design (Sachin Sudhakaran and Hari Haran) is also a huge plus (a scene that takes place with Thiruda Thiruda's Chandralekha song in the background is a highlight) and offsets the overdone score to an extent. These elements combine to whip up an atmosphere of dread that is unsettling for most parts of the film.
And for a debut effort, there is such assuredness in the filmmaking of Maya. Just as Karthik Subbaraj did with Pizza, Ashwin Saravanan seems to have made Maya as a showreel to prove that he has got cinematic flair. Unlike Subbaraj's horror thriller that was a neat feat of pulling the rug from under the audience's feet, Saravanan's Maya is a straight-out horror movie, an aspect that it shares with Demonte Colony. However, there is also genuinely moving emotional drama that recalls Mysskin's Pissasu. But Maya is wholly original and cerebral as well. Even after the film has ended, we keep thinking about it, replaying the scenes in our mind and thinking about the inventiveness in how the plot lines are brought together. And that is its real success.