2006, NR, 111 min. Directed by Rajnesh Domalpalli. Starring Mamatha Bhukya, Urmila Dammannagari, Karan Singh, Khishna Garlapati, Bhavani Renukunta, Prabhu Garlapati, Krishnamma Gundimalla, Ramachandriah Marikanti.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Oct. 12, 2007
It may be difficult, depending on one's caste, to eke out an existence in the South Indian district where Vanaja is set – poverty is endemic despite the Indian nation's emerging prowess in the global marketplace – but watching this small miracle of a film, you can see with your own eyes that it's never anything less that breathtakingly, stunningly beautiful. Even the most impoverished lives are marked by fleeting glimpses of earthbound joy, be it in the sweep of a hyperviolet sari, the smile of delight on a child's face, perfect white teeth set against the dark skin tones, or the dancing style known as Kuchipudi, taught to 14-year-old Vanaja (the remarkable Bhukya) by the wealthy landowner Rama Devi (Dammannagari). Vanaja comes under Rama Devi's tutelage when her father (Marikanti), too poor and too fond of the bottle to support her anymore, sends her to work for the elder woman. Over time, Vanaja bonds with her new household's cook (Gundimalla), falls for Rama Devi's upper-caste son Shekhar (Singh), and then, after her father finds himself completely adrift (and minus his livelihood when creditors take his skiff), things turn unpredictably ugly between Vanaja and Shekhar. But still, beauty thrives in the most impossible of places. Unlike the Bollywood films most mainstream audiences expect from India, Vanaja operates on a far more realistic level, minus the chorus lines and oft-times inane muggery, but with the added bonus of a melodramatic story that rings true – often heartbreakingly so – from beginning to end. Even more remarkable is the fact that all of the performers in Vanaja were at the time of shooting nonactors who were then trained "on the fly" by director Domalpalli, who, with his debut feature, turned in what may well be the best Columbia University master's thesis ever. No lie: This is the wonderful and wondrous antithesis of Bollywood, Hollywood, and everywhere else outside of Domalpalli's head and cinematographer Milton Kam's eye, and I guarantee it will linger in your own mind's eye for a very long time.