It’s a daunting task to achieve originality in a movie about street kids in India, but in Jaya, director Puja Maewal’s debut film, a complex young protagonist and a brisk, charged narrative spark suspense even while traversing familiar themes.
The teenager of the title, Jaya, is surviving on the margins in Bombay (Mumbai), India’s cultural capital, by committing petty theft, navigating underworld hierarchy, and negotiating the precarious bonds of chosen family. But Jaya has an added challenge: hiding her gender from everyone but her closest comrades in the slums.
Socially conscious Indian cinema often addresses the chasm between the Indian elite and the marginalized, and slum life’s malignancy and simultaneous political invisibility. Jaya is also attentive to these tensions. But the emotional vulnerability, canniness, and grit of Jaya the character — dogged and daring in her efforts to connect with a rich man she believes is her father — make the film feel like an adventure, not a treatise.
Director Maewal, who wrote the screenplay for her MFA thesis at UCLA, was inspired by a newspaper article about an accomplished thief who was part of an Indian street gang, and was only discovered to be a girl upon her arrest. To cast the film with non-professional actors, Maewal worked with a number of Bombay nonprofits, and rewrote parts of her script based on kids’ improvisations during the auditions.
The film’s stereotype-bucking star, Faimida Shaikh, is a Muslim girl who wears hijab, and cut off her hair to play the role of Jaya, whom she portrays with an inspired mix of swagger and sadness.
Maewal is at work on a feature length version of Jaya; the 18-minute film she made in grad school will premiere in New York at the Urbanworld Film Festival on Saturday, September 20, and comes to San Francisco’s 3rd I Festival in November.