Young Jaya survives brutal gang life on Mumbai’s unforgiving streets by posing as a boy. When she encounters a wealthy businessman who may be the father who abandoned her, she sets out to reclaim her identity.
About the Filmmaker
Puja Maewal is an Indian American writer/director from Fort Worth, Texas. Growing up, she loved both Hollywood and Bollywood cinema, which has inspired her to create international stories from a unique perspective. Her UCLA MFA thesis film, JAYA, was a Semifinalist in the Student Academy Awards and a Jury Award Winner at the Directors Guild of America Student Awards; it screened in over forty film festivals across the world. Her feature screenplay of JAYA, based on her short, was selected for the Writers Guild of America’s Feature Access program and Film Independent’s Screenwriting Lab. It was also a Semifinalist in the Academy Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting. UK Film News called her work “explosive,” India Post called it “beautiful,” and The Aerogram declared JAYA’s “brisk, charged narrative feels like an adventure.” Puja wrote and directed JAYA as a Fulbright Scholar in Mumbai, India.
Puja was also one of six filmmakers chosen to direct a short, called CASTOR OIL, for Film Independent’s Project Involve Fellowship, where she was mentored by filmmaker Derek Cianfrance. In addition, her short film SIDEKICK was a Student BAFTA U.S. Finalist and premiered at Comic-Con. Her work has been recognized by the Black List, the Caucus for Producers, Writers & Directors Foundation, the Los Angeles Film Review, and CINE. Her films have screened at numerous venues worldwide, including Zanzibar International Film Festival, the National Gallery of Art, and Hawaii International Film Festival, while earning awards at Rochester International Film Festival, Mexico International Film Festival, and CAAMFest. She has also developed content for several production companies, including BBC Worldwide, where she served as a Supervising Producer.
Puja previously took part in the Directors Guild of America’s Asian American Mentorship Program. Recently, the American Institute of Indian Studies awarded her a Creative Arts Fellowship for filmmaking in Mumbai. She holds a B.A. in English from Yale University and an MFA in Film Directing from UCLA.
More From the Filmmaker
I was inspired to tell this story when I came across a compelling newspaper article while on a Fulbright grant in India. The article detailed the arrest of a notorious member of an Indian street gang, who was wanted in over a hundred cases of purse and jewelry snatchings. The police assumed they had caught a boy, because the teenage suspect dressed and acted like a typical Indian boy. But it was only after several hours of intense interrogation that they realized they had actually captured a girl. She had been forced to masquerade as a boy for safety reasons, yet still she could not avoid horrific acts of sexual assault.
Though movies about street children have been done before, we have never seen a film from the perspective of a Mumbai street girl, which is why I wrote JAYA. I was drawn to this story because I wanted to feature a female protagonist who is both aggressive and vulnerable, a combination that I don’t often see in female characters onscreen. I also wanted to explore the relationship between a teenage girl and the father who abandoned her; I was particularly interested in how someone comes to terms with those feelings of abandonment.
Finding the lead actress was probably one of the most difficult obstacles we faced, as we auditioned hundreds of girls for the role, but almost all of them refused to cut their hair in the boy cut that the role requires. Luckily, Faimida Shaikh, the girl we finally chose, wore a hijab on a daily basis, and so she was fine with cutting off her hair–since no one would be able to tell the difference. In order to learn to pass as a boy, she studied and mimicked her elder brother’s behavior, an exciting task, since her mother had stressed the importance of domestic duties only, to prepare Faimida for an arranged marriage at age eighteen.
I hope you enjoy the film. I fell in love with Mumbai while making it, and I want to show others why the city’s energy, diversity, and spirit captivate me. I also want to present to the world the tireless efforts of my cast and crew, who put their hearts and souls into this movie. JAYA is my UCLA Thesis Film, and so far, it has been a Semifinalist in the Student Academy Awards, a Jury Award Winner at the Directors Guild of America Student Awards, a CINE Golden Eagle Winner, and a BAFTA/LA Finalist. We would love to screen the film in cities across the world.