Judge Gordon Sullivan thought this would be the story of a cellular phone company.
Vanaja is pitched into a batle of caste, class, and animus from which there is only one escape.
What happens when you take a bunch of non-actors, a student thesis film in a foreign language, and a meager budget? The answer usually is a train wreck of a film that only gets seen by the director's family and advising faculty. Amazingly, director Rajnesh Domalpalli manages to beat the odds and deliver Vanaja. It's a fascinating first feature, although not without its flaws.
Facts of the Case
Young (as in underage) Vanaja (like the rest of the cast, first-timer Mamatha Bhukya), daughter of a fisherman, desperately wants to learn to dance the traditional Kuchipudi dances after a fortune teller foresees a bright future in that career. Luckily, the local landlady (Urmila Dammannagari) is known as one of the most famous Kuchipudi dancers in the country. Vanaja goes to her house to seek work, hoping to learn dance from her. After some service, the landlady agrees to teach Vanaja. Everything seems to be going well, until the landlady's son returns home, taking an unhealthy interest in the young Vanaja. Eventually he rapes her, and the rest of the film deals with the fallout of an illicit relationship between two members of different castes.
The first half of Vanaja plays out like a fairy tale: the plucky young Vanaja, like many a young heroine, receives a prophecy, specifically that she will be a great dancer. So she offers to apprentice herself to the local master (in this case the landlady). She wins respect (and tutelage) by defeating her in a game of skill. Thus begins a training-style montage of Vanaja learning music and Kuchipudi dances. Everything seems to be going well, and this is the high point of the film. Then, the landlady's son returns home and rapes Vanaja, who becomes pregnant.
After the horrific events (luckily implied instead of depicted on screen), the film loses its momentum. The first half had an obvious plot, with character goals and development. Vanaja wanted to learn to dance, and she did. After her rape, the film doesn't have an obvious plot so it sort of meanders to a conclusion as Vanaja struggles to keep her baby and the landlady struggles to keep the baby a secret. I thoroughly enjoyed the first half of the film, with its interesting mix of characters and well-paced narrative drive. The second half kind of lost me, getting slower and slower until a somewhat contrived-seeming ending was tacked on. Plus, the 112-minute runtime is simply too long. I feel like 20 minutes could have been cut from the film, giving the second half less time to wander.
Although I have problems with the structure of the story, I have no problems with Rajnesh Domalpalli direction. He made the film a thesis project for Columbia University, and you'd never know it wasn't the work of a veteran filmmaker. He moves the camera with assurance, and some of his framing created beautiful images of both India and its environs. His budget was also very meager, but again, you'd never know it from the finished product. Vanaja doesn't look like a massive Bollywood epic, but it doesn't look like it was made for used-car prices either.
I'm struggling with finding the right word to describe the cast, since all the common phrases (amateurs, non-professionals, non-actors, etc) don't do justice to the level of talent on display in Vanaja, despite the fact that this is first film for the cast members. Every person on display is as convincing in their role as I've ever seen in a film. The two leads (Vanaja and the landlady Rama Devi) are especially good. Mamatha is totally believable as a precocious and headstrong young woman who fights like an adult both to dance and to keep her baby. Time will tell if it is merely the perfect marriage of actor and role that produced her performance, but my bet is that she'll be a force to be reckoned with if she pursues a career in cinema. The actress who plays Rama Devis is equally believable as a woman who was probably not much different from Vanaja as a youth. However, she also perfectly embodies the authority of her caste. I'm a grown man and I found her intimidating; I can't imagine what it must have been like to act alongside her. The only disappointment from an acting perspective in the entire film is the actor (Krishna Garlapati) who plays the landlady's son. He's not bad, but compared to the rest of the cast, he's a little stiff; luckily, that very stiffness works in favor of his character and isn't too distracting.
The film looks good on this DVD. The colors pop convincingly despite the budget constraints, and there are no obvious problems with the source or the transfer. The audio does an excellent job with the evocative music and Hindi language.
Although the presentation is strong, the extras are somewhat slight. Domalpalli apparently shot the traditional dances in their entirety but cut around them for the film. The extras feature five dances in all their intricate glory, and should be interesting to fans of the film. We also get four short films from Domalpalli. These look shot on video, like they're filmed stage plays. They definitely look like the work of someone exploring their style. The only extras that examine the film itself are two introductions, one by Domalpalli and the other by the young actress who played Vanaja. They give some insight into the making of the film, hitting the highlights, but a commentary or a more traditional "making of" doc would have been nice.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The central conflict in this film involves the sexual assault of a minor. Although the film doesn't show the act itself, Vanaja does encounter her attacker on a regular basis after he assaults her, and this interaction certainly made me uncomfortable. Although it's handled in a fairly tasteful manner, if this sort of plot point bothers you, steer clear of Vanaja.
Vanaja is an auspicious debut from an interesting new voice in cinema. Although far from perfect, the film has enough going for it to make me recommend it to anyone interested in Indian cinema. However, be warned that the film deals with mature themes which might offend some viewers.
Vanaja is guilty of being a bit too long for its own good and acquitted of all other charges.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Emerging Pictures
• Introduction by Director Rajnesh Domalpalli
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