Traveling across the globe can be an unnerving yet exciting experience. For Puja Maewal, it also led to artistic opportunity.
In 2009, Maewal, a graduate film student, left Los Angeles for India on a Fulbright scholarship. While there she learned to operate in a radically different film industry and also worked for BBC. It was in Mumbai that Maewal found inspiration for her short film “JAYA,” recently recognized by the Student Academy Awards as a regional finalist.
Working in India proved to be a challenge for Maewal, as she had to assemble a full-scale crew while combating issues with weather, permits and equipment. Maewal wrote numerous drafts of potential film scripts. Only while postponing a shoot for a different project during a monsoon did she finally settle on “JAYA.”
“JAYA” tells the story of an orphaned street kid from Mumbai who resorts to theft in order to survive in the city. The twist comes in the form of the title character Jaya being a girl, cutting her hair short, posing as a boy and joining a street gang. When she meets a man that may be her long-lost father, she embarks on a quest to find the truth.
Maewal drew from her experiences abroad in composing the story.
“I remember seeing a newspaper article about a girl in a street gang who was arrested by the police. Her story was really compelling to me and inspired the character,” Maewal said.
While in India, Maewal spent time volunteering in orphanages, finding inspiration working with young people.
She cast teenagers from the streets and slums of Mumbai for the film, most of whom did not have any acting experience. Maewal said she particularly enjoyed the process of getting to know them, helping them explore acting while they taught her about life growing up in the city.
Finding the lead role for the project proved to be a difficult process, as most of the girls said they would not cut their hair for cultural reasons.
“The girl we finally cast, Faimida Shaikh, wore a hijab on a daily basis, so she was okay with cutting off her hair because it would be covered while it grew back, and people wouldn’t know she had short hair,” Maewal said.
The film was produced by UCLA alumna Sara Lohman, a close collaborator of Maewal’s. Lohman said the film process required launching an online campaign on the website Indiegogo. The site invites private investors to finance independent projects in art, entertainment and business, similar to the site Kickstarter.
Maewal and Lohman were able to raise $10,001 for the project online, an increasingly common way independent films are financed.
Maewal delved into the arts during her senior year of high school, directing a theatrical play and finding a new niche in the process. From there she traveled to Yale to study English before making her way to UCLA for film school.
Thematically Maewal’s work deals with repression and identity, citing influences by Swedish director Ingmar Bergman and his work on the 1963 film “The Silence.”
Fred Guerrier, editor for “JAYA” and longtime friend of Maewal, said Maewal’s work has an aggressive, dark quality, but is also genuine and honest. Guerrier saw bits of that in “JAYA.”
Currently Maewal is in the process of expanding “JAYA” to feature length, with hopes of returning to Mumbai with the wealth of experience she gained while working on the short.
Reflecting on the regional finalist nod by the Academy, she said she was pleasantly surprised.
“It was really unexpected. Anytime you submit for something, it’s kind of a crapshoot of a chance,” Maewal said. “It’s nice to get the validation and to know that they saw something special in it.”