VANAJA. Director: Rajnesh Domalpalli. Players: Mamatha Bhukya, Urmila Dammannagari, Ramachandriah Marikanti, Karan Singh. Theatrical release (Emerging Pictures). Opens September 14 in Los Angeles and October 5 in the Bay Area, check local listings. Parental advisory.
Not many film debuts are nervous celluloid offerings at the sacrificial alter of post-post-secondary matriculation. Yet Rajnesh Domalpalli’s freshman entry is just that. Submitted at Columbia University for the filmmaker’s MFA (Master of Fine Arts) thesis, Vanaja is something quite remarkable. Child-like in its outlook, but hardly childish in its convictions, Vanaja is a marvelous Telugu film about a strong-willed girl’s first steps towards womanhood.
Set in a sleepy, remote fishing village on the steamy Andhra Pradesh coast, Domalpalli traces the story of precocious 14-year-old Vanaja (Bhukya). Leaving behind a childhood of pulling pranks in order to help her widowed fisherman father (Ramachandriah), Vanaja finds work as a domestic in the household of renowned kuchipudi dance instructor Rama Devi (Dammannagari). The return of Rama Devi’s 23-year-old son, Shekhar (Singh), sets in motion a collision between the last vestiges of Vanaja’s childhood and the tumultuous tug of budding post-adolescent hormonal angst. And that’s just in the film’s first 30 minutes.
Utilizing the time tested motif of class difference, especially in rural India, the filmmaker is very much at ease with a simply outlined, simply told, and decently acted (from a nearly all amateur cast) tale. Primary colors—the flowers in Rama Devi’s garden carry a sharp, neon yellow hue—and extended mid-length shots (Vanaja’s footwork after she takes up classical Indian dancing) converge to cast a magic spell.
At the center of all this is Bhukya’s Vanaja, the teen protagonist. Each time she is thrust under a social microscope in a hamlet where no secrets are safe and no good deed goes unpunished, Vanaja, who appears frail on the outside, emerges stronger then ever. The most memorable characters in the film are female, and the powerful matriarchal undercurrent at the heart of Domalpalli’s script (the seed for this story is rooted in one single mother-child separation scene from Sophie’s Choice) is greatly enforced.
This neo-feminist stance is remarkable especially when juxtaposed against the hardships that Vanaja endures. This post-Independence dichotomy—women who experience a harsh social reality but emerge with their spirit intact—is a brilliant evolutionary trait pioneered by the likes of V. Shantaram (Stree,Sehra) and the great Mehboob Khan (Mother India).
16-year old Bhukya’s performance is all the more remarkable considering she had never danced or acted before being offered this role. Bhukya’s classical dance moves are precise. Using her strikingly expressive eyes to convey the slow burning rage she harbors, Bhukya’s Vanaja takes to the highly evocative kuchipudi dance form. This is most noteworthy in a sequence where Vanaja dances as the Hindu goddess Durga, whose fury is unleashed as the goddess prepares to vanquish the arch demon Mahisha Asura. The focused rage that Vanaja channels into slaying her make-believe stage enemy becomes an astute metaphor for Vanaja’s own daily demons. Don’t miss Domalpalli’s superb film.
Globe trekker, aesthete, photographer, ski bum, film buff, and commentator Aniruddh Chawda writes from Milwaukee.