Dear Maya, Manisha Koirala's film on the power of epistolary love, says both too much, and too little
“The form of sexting is so immediate… There’s a craft that’s been lost in expressing some kind of desire or passion or bodily experience for someone else,” said Rachel Mars, a theatre director, who just last month put together a stage show celebrating the raunchy letters from James Joyce to his wife Nora and from Frida Kahlo to her lover Diego.
It might be a tradition fading fast in the era of WhatsApp and Wingman apps, but every now and again someone gets nostalgic about love letters. There are a long line of films which dwell on the power of epistolary love too. A lot of the emotional charge of these relies on some small-time fraud that eventually becomes a life-changing event and gives the movie its ‘if only’ zest. Either a postman is plagiarising Neruda to line-maro someone in Il Postino, or a significant love letter never reaches its intended recipient in Finding Fanny.
And then there are the set-up films, where the love letter become a community-driven match-making effort. Letters to Juliet had a manic sisterhood writing letters to lovelorn women. And now, a new film titled Dear Maya explores what happens when two teenaged girls in Shimla write fake love letters to cheer up their neighbour, a desolate woman named Mayadevi. The woman is played by Manisha Koirala, which makes a lot of the difference to what would otherwise be a bubblegum-and-rainbows film, because even though the first letter transforms her from a ghoul who loves the dark to a woman who adores sunlight, her acting is understated and powerful.
“Socho… ek boring woman ki boring life mein hum Shah Rukh Khan laa rahe hain,” exclaims Ira to her friend Anna in Sunaina Bhatnagar’s debut feature film, before their plan spirals out of control after Mayadevi moves to Delhi to hunt down the fictional lover, who is predictably untraceable for a long, long time.
The film has a sugary sweet ending, because Mayadevi finds, in the hinterlands of Khan Market, unexpected love in the arms of a jewellery shop manager. Let’s not bang on about the “Why Miss Jones, you are beautiful” tropes the film regurgitates — the fact that a bunch of new saris change the gaunt-looking Mayadevi overnight to someone whose eyes glint constantly with the possibility of requited love. Or that she’s asked to wear make-up and jewellery so that everything will feel all right, and does.
The film says both too much and too little about the girls’ investment in bringing Shah Rukh Khan-level glamour to a lonely life.
Here’s the thing: by foregrounding the girls as harmless — ultimately very well-meaning if idiotic — adolescents, the film wants you to secretly congratulate Anna and Ira’s redemption project when it is actually an irritating intrusion. Wouldn’t it bug you? By making them young girls, it wants to negate the idea that their enterprise also borders on voyeuristic, that their spying on this woman and stealing stuff from her house means nothing because they can’t be real threats to her privacy. And of course they aren’t, technically — but then again, the idea of privacy invasion comes so often couched in benevolent terms that nothing is allowed to be viewed as a threat anymore. Interfering in an individual’s life has to come with a halo attached, or else it will, you know, look like snooping.
Later in the film, when the action jumps from Mayadevi’s departure for Delhi to six years in the future, we hear a lot about the life-changing consequences their petty prank has had. Anna’s mother can never trust her again and packs her off to boarding school, and Anna claims she was unable to sleep or breathe because she was agonising over Mayadevi. She becomes super judgemental and casts off her best friend Ira, who engineered the letter prank, even accusing her of only wanting fun when she dances with a guy in a nightclub. Like in the novel The Kite Runner, Anna’s guilt comes with a constant implication of the person’s inner virtue and how far they’ve strayed from who they could have been, had that one devastating incident — in this case writing some bloody love letters — not occurred. The fun thing about coming-of-age films is that they do blow issues out of proportion that older people might dismiss as trite. But in this case, the rest of the film becomes entirely about the girls’ all-consuming guilt, at the expense of fleshing out Koirala’s character.
There’s nothing new about films portraying older unattached women as objects of pity — in Dil Chahta Hai, for instance, Dimple Kapadia as an alcoholic divorcee brings everyone jumping onto the rescue bandwagon, Akshaye Khanna in particular. (Others like Wake Up Sid just toy with the older woman-young man dynamic, and make sure the woman is young enough that no one panics.)
And actually by the end, Dear Maya avoids that, as it shows Koirala being defiant and proud about having adopted a son. Up until this point, though, she is a cryptic character, and you want to know far more about her, but are denied anything beyond some garbled hints about her tragic past and lost loves. Instead, Mayadevi’s happy ending inspires the girls big-time: Anna gets past her commitment issues (it’s implied but not said outright that these stem from her guilt over the unresolved Mayadevi stuff) and says yes a thousand times to the guy wanting to marry her. Ira dreams of fleeing Shimla because she has a hysterically good time in HKV.
Now, we live in times when everyone’s love letters — including Joyce’s ones applauding Nora’s farts — are up for grabs. But that’s fine because no one is putting up a show of being angelic about vicariously enjoying or interfering in people’s love lives. We’re being breezy about being salacious and gossipy, and virtue doesn’t come into it at all, unlike in Dear Maya, where the ghost of a good girl gone bad won’t stop ramming into you.
The Ladies Finger (TLF) is a leading online women’s magazine