Sunaina Bhatnagar’s debut feature Dear Maya, which she has also written, deftly uses 1990s star Manisha Koirala as a talismanic presence. The setting is Shimla. Maya (Koirala) is the reclusive neighbour of curious 15-year-old school girl Anna (Madiha Imam). Maya, challenging Miss Havisham from Great Expectations, is distinctly not au courant. Maya lives with a household help in antique heaven, surrounded by caged birds, two mostly polite Great Danes and painful memories of an oppressive uncle and a lost love.

Being giggly teenagers and best friends forever, Anna and Ira (Shreya Chaudhary) decide that love is all Maya needs. Perhaps having watched the Hollywood movie Hateship, Loveship (2014), they write Maya a series of fake letters from an old courtier they name Ved. The letters are suffused with longing, since Anna takes care to quote from poetry journals, and they trigger a series of changes in Maya. She finally throws open the windows of her mansion to let in some air and light. She starts leaving the house more often. Then one day, she vanishes.

Dear Maya (2017).

Maya’s disappearance consumes Anna, and causes her to break ties with Ira. Six years later, Anna has moved to Delhi and is studying at Miranda House. She has a seemingly unlimited expense account and a pin-up for a boyfriend (Sahil Shroff). Yet, Anna yearns for information on Maya. Her quest reunites her with Ira, opening a can of worms neither young woman is prepared to handle.

Bhatnagar’s film has the quality of a short story adapted for the screen. She takes care – perhaps too much of it – to flesh out characters and their relationship with one another, but her empathy towards and understanding of Anna’s situation makes Dear Maya unexpectedly engrossing. Nicely shot by Sayak Bhattacharya, the film is one of the better observed coming of age films in recent times.

However, Dear Maya deeply suffers from the indulgence of a debutant director. There is too much plot exposition, too many sequences are allowed to ramble on, and some of the dialogue verbalises feelings that are glaringly apparent. The movie is ultimately about hope, and Bhatnagar supplies too much of it.

Yet, there is heart in the flab. The movie is being billed as a comeback of sorts for Manisha Koirala, who is affecting as the emotionally stunted Maya for whom the letters provide unanticipated and often frightening hope. Maya initially shrinks from terror at the ardour contained in the letters, unaware that they represent an adolescent fantasy, and Koirala is well placed to convey Maya’s vulnerability and gradual awakening.

But the movie belongs to the two young women, beautifully portrayed by Madiha Imam and Shreya Chaudhary. Bhatnagar has an ear for the Hindi-English speech patterns of teenagers and their overweening emphasis on the ability of love to move mountains or, in this case, push Maya out of her stupor. The young actresses nail a sequence in which they exchange barbs and confidences in a Delhi nightclub. The conversation has the flavour of youthful silliness as well as early adult wisdom, which is perfectly brought out by Imam and Chaudhary.

Koirala’s screen presence signals that older actresses can have an afterlife, while the young actresses prove that talent thrives in surprising places. Imam, a Pakistani TV show presenter, is especially effective as Anna, conveying the difficult journey from immaturity to responsibility with sensitivity.