Rajnesh Domalpalli's Vanaja has a remarkable story behind it. Produced as the writer-director's master's thesis at Columbia, where he was advised not to make a feature, not to cast non-actors and not to shoot in 35mm (this tip he followed, using Super 16mm instead, though his adviser had suggested video), the film went on to acceptance at more than 75 film festivals worldwide, including the prestigious Berlin International Film Festival, where it won this year's Best Debut Feature award. It was made in South India, where it clashed with the local bureaucracy and the typically big-budget Tollywood film industry, and the cast wasn't't so much made up of non-professionals as it consisted of poor and sometimes desperately unemployed citizens who would have just as much taken a job cleaning the elephant cage as appeared on screen.
Certainly a behind-the-scenes look at Vanaja must be included on the DVD. But Vanaja would be and is an extraordinary film regardless of its background, and to wait to see it on video is a terrible disservice to its on-screen achievements, particularly Milton Kam's beautiful cinematography. Even as I mean to point out its stand-alone cinematic greatness – admittedly too late, considering I began with an introduction detailing its off-screen success – I have to address the fact that Vanaja looks amazing for being shot on Super 16. I wish that I could also highlight the film as the best thesis film I saw in 2007, but with Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep re-released earlier this year, Vanaja unfortunately has to settle for second place. Yet Domalpalli's film shouldn't really be compared to Burnett's; they are nothing alike in terms of cinematography, plot, narrative structure, affect or anything at all, really.
Vanaja tells the story of a 14-year-old girl (Mamatha Bhukya), after whom the title is named. Too poor to afford a pencil to use at school, she lives with her widowed father (Marikanti Ramachandriah), a mediocre fisherman with increasing debt. When he can no longer provide for his daughter, he convinces a wealthy landlady named Rama Devi (Urmila Dammannagari) to take his daughter in and put her to work. Fortunately, this landlady takes a liking to the bright, young Vanaja, quickly promotes her to work alongside her primary aide, the cantankerous cook Radhamma (Krishnamma Gundimalla), and agrees to also teach her Kuchipudi dance on the side. For a while, the film focuses on these traditional music and dance lessons, and the story seems to be headed in an uplifting, Billy Elliot-esque direction.
However, despite having some conventions of the coming of age genre, Vanaja is concerned more on life than on life lessons. The only moment in which the film becomes clichéd is with a scene of "Show me yours; I'll show you mine" between the young lady and a slightly older postman. If the gender discovery/sexual curiosity is a must, another scene, with Vanaja spying on Rama Devi's twenty-something son, Shekhar (Karan Singh), to his delight, is more successful. Of course, as is expected, Vanaja develops a crush on Shekhar, who has just returned from America and is running for office in the local government. Gradually, though, the film turns away from its coming-of-age course and ascends into the realm of women's melodrama – though it doesn't get so dreary in tone and never once tugs at the viewer's emotions so heavily.
The downward progression begins for Vanaja when creditors take away her father's fishing boat and he begins to drink away her savings. Then, she too loses her job when she becomes pregnant, having been raped by Shekhar. From then on, the plot consistently rises and falls and Vanaja fluctuates between acceptance and rejection by Rama Devi. Yet marvelously, the film maintains a natural flow with its plot points and dramatic transitions. Nothing in the story is ever treated with overbearing conviction nor is any scene portrayed gratuitously. Where most films would likely convey the rape by showing the actual harrowing incident, Vanaja skips over it and shows us the pain of the aftermath instead with a terrific scene in which Vanaja and the rivaling Radhamma finally become united in understanding.
The true parallel and connection between the younger and older employee is almost implied by the film, and there are hints that Radhamma's past was quite similar to Vanaja's. But regardless of whether the pair has an unrecognized link, their relationship, with its dualistic nature, nonetheless functions as the backbone of Vanaja. It is certainly a more interesting relationship than Vanaja has with the flirtatious yet socially unattainable Shekhar or even with the enjoyable but authoritative landlady, but mostly because it isn't as forthright. The foreground of the story primarily deals with Vanaja's education and disciplines at the hands of Rama Devi, and it is here that the film is at its most entertaining. Domalpalli's real accomplishment is his ability to balance this external, crowd-pleasing stuff of dance scenes and coming-of-age triumphs with the internal questions regarding the continued caste struggles of South India.
Back to its off-screen achievements, the dances and music are even more incredible with knowledge that prior to making Vanaja, young Bhukya was unskilled at Kuchipudi, and dance in general, and Dammannagari had never before played an instrument. Both their biographies, as well as those of the other amateur actors, are really worth checking out, and thankfully the film's website includes these background stories. As for the DVD, well, that may also feature some of the intriguing bits about the cast and the production. When asked at the film's New York premiere about whether or not these tales and other behind-the-scenes information would be on the DVD, Domalpalli said that he hopes so. He then proceeded to detail some of the footage he has of the preparations and of the shoot, including some videos of Bhukya learning to act. But it's anyone's guess when the DVD will be available. With still more festivals in its future and a theatrical roll out that extends through November, Vanaja will hopefully be on the big screen for a while. The film opens first in Manhattan, at Cinema Village, on Friday, August 31.