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"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.
Vanaja (2006), written and directed by Rajnesh Domalpalli, is an
extraordinary film from South India. Mamatha Bhukya plays 15-year-old
Vanaja, who lives in a rural area with her loving but alcoholic father.
If she is going to succeed in life, she will have to overcome the
liabilities of low caste and poverty.
I went to the film expecting the depiction of a wretched girl who is crushed by society. This isn't what "Vanaja" shows us. The young woman is attractive, intelligent, and ambitious. She won't accept her fate with tears or simple resignation. She wants to succeed, and it's never clear that she won't succeed, despite the odds.
The acting that Mr. Domalpalli draws forth from his cast of amateurs is miraculous. Mamatha Bhukya is outstanding in the title role, and Urmila Dammannagari does an exceptional job as Mrs. Rama Devi, the wealthy landowner who is a formerly famous classical dancer.
In the film Vanaja learns South Indian classical dance, as she did in real life. I couldn't tell how good Vanaja's dancing was by Indian standards, but the many dance scenes were spellbinding. (Don't think Bollywood--this is classical dance. It's also very different from ballet, because in ballet the dancer lifts her heels away from the floor. In South Indian dance, the heel is the primary contact point.)
This is a movie that is not to be missed. It will work on DVD, but will be better on a theater screen because the dancing will be shown to better advantage. However, if DVD is your only option, then see it that way. Just be sure to see it.
This is not your typical Indian film. There is some great sense of humanity, and the characters are pretty realistic. There is great dynamism in the interpersonal relationships, and there is a sense of guilt, grief, passion, passivity among the many characters. While seeing this, one gets a feel for the heavy burden of the 5000 years of layers and layers of history of social existence of one of the oldest civilizations. The final scene of an elephant walking away in the rural area was a great footnote to such a ancient civilization, and yet, human relations are still preserved and nurtured. Saw it on DVD, the two interviews with the director and the main actress are very interesting. Was surprised to learn that the movie has not done well (or not being shown) in India (... but maybe not too surprised). The artistic patrimony of rural societies is being slowly lost and its inheritance not picked up by younger generations, as some of the older musicians in the movie are no longer living today. Great film.
Vanaja is a film of superlatives. It has an exceptionally well thought-out cast with Mamatha being the crowning jewel, a superb production and possibly pre-production with Rajnesh at the helm, a fantastic journey of rural Southern India through the eyes of a 15 year old, a remarkable mixture of song and dance, traditional and modern, blended perfectly, and a beautiful backdrop of lush color of the flora and fauna that make up the magnificent experience. What a towering achievement for a debut director!! The casting was absolutely dead-on. I wish India would come out with more of such films. This film will remain as one of my top favorites for my entire life. 9/10.
Winning 26 out of the 28 awards it was nominated for, there is no doubt
that this film will stand as one of the best of 2007. The fact that it
was made with non professionals who were trained to act and dance makes
it that much more special.
It is not a Bollywood production, but it is about art. A lower caste girl wants to sing and dance. She wants to move up in society, but there is a limit. Everyone cannot be President in India, there is a caste system, and the narrow minds will not allow it to be breached.
Vanaja (Mamatha Bhukya) quits school at 15 and goes to work for the Landlady (Urmila Dammannagari), who was once an accomplished dancer. After some time working the animals, she is taught to sing and dance. The film is strikingly beautiful with rich color. It is amazing what can be done with $20,000, as this film was a Master's project for the writer director.
The Landlady's son (Karan Singh) returns from America to run for office and is struck by the girl. But, she is lower caste and can only be a vessel for his lust. Things are no better at home as her father drinks and eats and steals her money. She ends up pregnant and has to sell the baby to the Landlady.
In the end, she never rises above her caste, but the story was fascinating and the acting was really good.
"Vanaja" is well done and the first-time director (Rajnesh Domalpalli)
apparently made the film for his masters degree! This is very
impressive and he showed an amazing deftness for such an inexperienced
director! However, while I did appreciate the great work done to make
this film, I must warn you that this is an incredibly depressing
film--mostly because the value of woman in many places in the world
still is minimal. In this story, a young girl, Vanaja, is horribly
mistreated and while you know such things happen, it sure is sad to
The film begins with Vanaja about 15 years-old. However, to me she only appeared about 11 or perhaps 12--and this made the story a bit more disturbing because she looked so much like a child. But long before this, we see the girl go to work for a local rich landlady. Vanaja has spirit--she's spunky but likable and soon the rich lady takes her under her wing and teaches Vanaja to dance. Vanaja has a real passion and talent for dancing and you assume through the course of the film she'll rise to greatness. However, while this could happen, the film instead centers on he immediate life--and it sure gets pretty bad. But, as I don't want to ruin the film for you, I'll say no more and just encourage you to see it.
I think this is an important film in the way it documents the devaluation of women as well as the evils of classism. So, from an academic sense, it's well worth seeing. However, it's anything but a feel-good picture--and will most likely depress you--especially because it doesn't end on a particularly satisfying note. But, of course, in real life this IS often the case.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This does contain many spoilers.
VANAJA starts our with interesting promise, but it soon turns muddy and ends without telling a believable story.
At first, VANAJA appears to be a nice coming-of-age story similar to SCENT OF GREEN PAPAYA but with a more zippy pace mixed into an Indian classical dance movie. However, it turns away from the higher arts, and seems to want to be a matter-of-fact sex movie, then it twice tries to be a revenge movie, then it wants to be a family bonding drama, then it tries to be a movie of personal self-redemption, and then it ends as a friendship movie ignoring all of the many, many swings and motivations we have all just witnessed!
There is too much unbelievable weirdness. Anyone spending years in a northern US college is not going to come home from the airport not wearing shoes. A fully mature red-blooded guy living among our many fully developed curvy and fun point-seven hip ratio college girls is simply not going to notice a 12-year-old unattractive stick figure with a face for radio. India is famous for parents actively pushing potential mates upon their children, so where in the movie are any attractive fully developed young females? There are none.
And about the mailman who also very much wants this 12-year-old looking girl, why would he want her so much after she had a baby? After having someone else's baby? Are there not high school girls to chase or something? What kind of village is this?
Another problem is no none in the movie displays a kind heart except for Lacchi -- whose story is never followed. She is the only attractive personality we ever meet, but this is not her story.
Everyone else in this movie is dark and unattractive and lacks charm. OK, you may say, so this is a gritty dark movie. Well no, because none of the worst players are consistently bad. They do hurtful things with no realistic motivation. They do not even pretend to be kind for an evil purpose. They act randomly as if suffering with split personalities.
Also, there is talk of 600,000 Indian dollars going to the poor father. This plan appears to be a done deal, but we never see any hint of how this 600,000 might have changed his life. We never see the money at all, but we do see the other side of the plan in full detail. The 600,000 just disappears forever with no explanation.
Last, Vanaja does not hold and treat her baby with motherly closeness. Her neck does not grow thick as happens with pregnancy. She is such a stick figure, and the father of her baby is such a strapping male in his prime, the story makes no sense.
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