A film that touches the heartstrings as it brings home the cruel class distinctions that poison Indian society, “Vanaja” is more than a children’s film, despite revolving around a central character of 14. Its social message, linked to the story of a poor farmgirl who aspires to be a dancer, never feels forced, and the moral issues it depicts are realistically complex. While that might not translate into obvious box office potential, arthouse appeal is there for distribs willing to seek out a market. U.S. auds will have a chance to see it in any of 22 festival engagements.
Exceptionally acted by a nonpro cast and colorfully lensed to evoke a village world, the film is sensitively directed by debuting filmmaker Rajnesh Domalpalli, who penned the script while studying film at Columbia. The rural Indian setting is given additional color via generous interludes of traditional Kuchipudi dancing, performed by the young protag as a natural part of the story rather than as Bollywood-style music and dance inserts.
Film opens on an outdoor performance of Kuchipudi, whose intricate steps and hand movements make it an esoteric artform, yet it is enormously popular with the local population. Among the excited kids watching the dance is Vanaja (Mamatha Bhukya), a sassy lass who taunts the boys and looks after her alcoholic fisherman father (Ramachandriah Marikanti). When his debts overflow, she leaves school and becomes a servant in the home of the formidable Rama Devi (Urmila Dammannagari), a once-great Kuchipudi dancer who is now a power broker for her politically ambitious son Shekhar (hunky model Karan Singh.)
Using her native intelligence, Vanaja persuades Rama Devi to give her dancing lessons while she continues to work as a kitchen maid. A mischievous spirit, she spies on Shekhar while he is in the shower, but this naughty prank leads to the story’s dramatic turning point when the spoiled young master rapes her.
Vanaja becomes pregnant, but manages to have the baby by threatening the father with scandal. The moral compass swings back and forth as Rama Devi first buys the child and Vanaja’s promise of silence, then is manipulated into a corner by the clever girl, who wants Shekhar to marry her. Being crazy about her, he would, too, if the class gap didn’t put such a neat solution out of the question.
Young Bhukya, who learned dancing to make the film, is a self-possessed actress of great natural charm. Her uncowed spirit pulls viewers into the story as she fights battles that most grownups would shun. The haughtily dignified Dammannagari, an Indira Gandhi figure when playing kingmaker to her son, brings an unexpected kindliness to the role when dealing with Vanaja. Playing straightforward characters with memorable faces are Marikanti as the ailing father and Krishna Garlapati as Vanaja’s humble admirer Ram Babu.
Pic’s respect for the native culture of southern India is evident in the colorful and authentic-looking technical work, beginning with Milton Kam’s lensing that harmonizes the bold colors of the costumes and sets. A special mention must go to the film’s exceptional website http://www.vanajathefilm.com, which goes deeply into the extraordinary real-life stories of cast and crew.