by Dianne Lawrence
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Vanaja, a beautifully crafted film, is a stunning directorial debut for Rajnesh Domalpalli. A natural storyteller, Domalpalli weaves back and forth between harsh realism and lyrical imagery as he reveals the disturbing practice of India’s caste system and its complex repercussions in the lives of all involved. Set in a small Indian village in the 1950s, our 15-year old heroine, motherless Vanaja, is forced to leave school and get a job when her alcoholic father’s marginal fishing business sinks lower. Smart, independent, scrappy, Vanaja learns from a soothsayer that she is destined to become a famous dancer and quickly finds a job in the household of Rama Devi, a local landlady and trained dancer in the Kuchipudi tradition. Vanaja’s initial attempts to convince Rama to instruct her are rebuffed, but her cleverness and sincerity overcome Rama’s reluctance. Soon, Vanaja’s promising talent is blossoming under the instructor’s stern but affectionate eye. When Shekar, Rama’s arrogant and handsome son, returns home to fulfill his mother’s political ambitions, the age-old Indian theme of difficult love comes into play. Vanaja’s precocious sexuality, sharp intelligence and feisty independence do not mix well with his playboy confidence and shaky ego. Not surprisingly, disaster waits.
The film started as a project submission for Domalpalli’s first semester class at Columbia University and slowly developed over the next three semesters. For his first film, he was extremely fortunate to partner with cinematographer Milton Kam, whose gorgeous cinematography recaptures and updates the rich Technicolor feel of a ’50s film. Production designer Nagulu Busigampala has excelled in keeping one’s eyes filled with delight with his sensational use of color and his artful reproduction of the architecture and life of a small Indian village.
Vanaja is mercifully free of the contemporary Bollywood sparkle and fizzle (it is actually from Tollywood, the Telugu language version of Bollywood) and has the feel of earlier Indian filmmaking, where the dancing and music are closely rooted in traditional styles. Surprisingly, Indian films often deal with the difficult constrictions Indian women endure. They have power only when they marry, and then only if they have children, and then only if they have boys. This truth is a central issue around which the plot eventually revolves. Domalpalli has created a complex character in young Vanaja. Her shining intelligence, strength and talent are hampered by her own unruly feistiness and petulance. You root for her while wanting to shake some sense into her. Domalpalli’s talent is not restricted to an entertaining storyline but extends to his ability to create characters that aren’t all good or bad but human.
The acting is amazing especially considering none of the actors were professionals. He wanted real characters and found his actors by placing ads for different kinds of domestic help. He found his remarkable fifteen-year old lead for Vanaja, Mamatha Buhkya, during a search in schools. Nearly overlooking her because of a short haircut, a teacher convinced him to let her sing, and she found her way on to the short list. Mamatha had no dance or musical training and learned her art after a year of study in the basement of the director’s family home.
If you are a friend of Indian films then this one will place high on your recommendation list and if you love this film you may want to also consider renting The Guide by directors Vijay Anand and Tad Danielewski, a 1965 film that also deals with the unfortunate life of a woman who wants to dance.
For more on the remarkable stories of the cast and crew of Vanaja click here.
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