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Vanaja (2006)

 -  Drama  -  31 August 2007 (USA)
7.3
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Ratings: 7.3/10 from 352 users  
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Vanaja, the 15 year old daughter of a financially troubled fisherman goes to work in the local landlady's house in hopes of learning Kuchipudi dance. She does well, but when the Landlady's ... See full summary »

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Cast

Cast overview:
Mamatha Bhukya ...
Urmila Dammannagari ...
Ramachandriah Marikanti ...
Krishnamma Gundimalla ...
Radhamma
Karan Singh ...
Bhavani Renukunta ...
Lacchi
Krishna Garlapati ...
Ram Babu
Prabhu Garlapati ...
Yadigiri
Ram Babu Tarra ...
Yagnesh
Veeramma Sadula ...
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Storyline

Vanaja, the 15 year old daughter of a financially troubled fisherman goes to work in the local landlady's house in hopes of learning Kuchipudi dance. She does well, but when the Landlady's son returns from the US, what begins as innocent sexual chemistry turns ugly, ending in a rape - a rape of a minor. Set in rural South India, a place where social barriers are built stronger than ancient fort walls, the film explores the chasm that divides classes as a young girl struggles to come of age. Written by Anonymous

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Drama

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Release Date:

31 August 2007 (USA)  »

Box Office

Opening Weekend:

$10,771 (USA) (31 August 2007)

Gross:

$145,927 (USA) (2 November 2007)
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1.85 : 1
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User Reviews

Amazing cast of non-actors; not a feel-good film, highlighting class boundaries in rural South India
22 August 2007 | by (Durham, NC (USA)) – See all my reviews

"Vanaja" depicts a spirited 14-year-old rural South Indian girl who possesses an uncanny common sense intelligence which she puts to use to try to improve the lot of herself and her poor fisherman father. Writer, director, and co-editor Rajnesh Domalpalli wrote the story as part of a first semester project at Columbia University and completed it as his thesis for a Master of Fine Arts in Film.

The film highlights the plight of the working poor, an unfortunately universally understood situation of hard work concomitant with escalating debt and a systematic lack of control over many aspects of one's life. Filmed in Andhra Pradesh, lead Vanaja (Mamatha Bhukya) and other villagers are vassals of landlady Rama Devi (Urmila Dammannagari). Her natural self-confidence boosted by a prophecy that she will be an accomplished dancer, Vanaja secures household employment with Rama Devi to help pay the father's debts, as well as to see if she can manage to get some dance lessons.

Things seem to be going well when the landlady's son, Shekhar (Karan Singh) returns from the United States, groomed to run for local politics. His unhealthy attraction to Vanaja proves an overpowering match for her innocent strength. The outrageously common mentality of blame and shame foisted on a victimized woman is somewhat mitigated when the landlady comes to understand the resulting situation and confronts Shekhar. There is an uneasy truce after the baby is born with Vanaja sometimes returning for work. In interests of quelling political innuendo, Vanaja's father is paid a hefty bribe and the baby is to be brought up in the comfort of Rama Devi's home.

The remaining narrative, though somewhat predictable, is interesting and driven by the lead character's strong willpower. One leaves the film feeling muted sadness, desiring that opportunity and social mobility can quickly permeate and make the study of caste purely a historical one.

My own appreciation of the film was greatly enhanced by having access to a press kit, including a beautifully presented booklet about the film. For example, I learned that one of the many challenges in making the film was finding talent among common people; placing ads just wouldn't work as the crew were already being rumored to be after stealing organs and body parts. So they placed ads for household help, such as "female, aged 35 to 50, needed to care for elderly parents" and gauged potential among respondents. Urmila Dammannagari, for example, married at age 9 and a widow with four children, was working as a bottle sealer for a while but unemployed when she saw the ad; "shocked and completely taken aback when she found out the real motive of the ad, she nevertheless took on the role" of the landlady "and the 25km commute, quickly becoming not just an assured actor, but a mother-hen to a brood of young actors in training".

The film owes a lot to the excellent and very natural acting of the lead, Mamatha Bhukya. Just as Ms. Dammannagari came into her aristocratic role so surprisingly smoothly, so did Ms. Bhukya, who had no dance or acting background. In fact, the film changed her ambition from that of being a doctor to pursuing acting and Kuchipudi dance.

I found all but one of the actors to be quite convincing, and am awed knowing of their very simple backgrounds. Karan Singh, however, a Wesley College-educated model, delivered a disappointing performance. His sneering, detached aloofness was not realistic, and his entire character as heir apparent seemed totally unfounded by any political ability. I also found the editing at times to be somewhat abrupt; continuity would have been enhanced with the use of recurring motifs or more of a soundtrack.

Vanaja is not a feel-good film and is not suited for children or perhaps teenagers. While it has its flaws, it is a remarkable film in the context of the local "actors" used and their magnificent performances, as well as considering that this is a thesis. I look forward to seeing future films that Rajnesh Domalpalli, IIT-Mumbai computer engineer turned artist who divides his time between New York and his hometown of Hyderabad, may create.

Vanaja's U.S. premiere is August 31 in New York. A DVD as well as musical soundtrack are expected to be released in 2008.


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