Simultaneously resigned, frustrated, cautiously hopeful, angry and ravishingly beautiful, this story of an impoverished country girl who tries to better herself through Indian classical dance is a stunning debut for writer-director Rajnesh Domalpalli.
The film opens with a folk-dance performance on a rural stage; 14-year-old Vanaja (Mamatha Bhukya) and her best friend, Lacchi (Bhavani Renukunta), are thrilled by elderly but still-graceful dancer Padma (Veeramma Sadula), who genially predicts that Vanaja will herself one day be a great performer. But Vanaja's circumstances are constrained. Though a good student, she leaves school to help support her aging father, widowed fisherman Somayya (Ramachandriah Marikanti), who's deep in debt to a local moneylender. Vanaja inveigles a job at the home of wealthy landowner Rama Devi (Urmila Dammannagari), herself a fine musician and once a renowned dancer. Vanaja boldly badgers Devi to teach her, and the older woman eventually agrees. But things take an ugly turn when Devi's American-educated son, Shekhar (Karan Singh), returns home to launch a career in local politics with his ambitious mother's guidance. The petulant Shekhar, accustomed to getting his way, takes a liking to Vanaja but is infuriated by her independence — she is, after all, a low-caste serving girl. Shekhar eventually rapes Vanaja. Pregnant and disgraced but determined to have her child, Vanaja abandons her lessons and returns to her father; the scandal derails Shekhar's campaign and Vanaja's already-circumscribed future looks bleaker than ever.
Developed at Columbia University's graduate school of the arts, filmed in Andhra Pradesh, southern India, with nonactors, and shot in super 16mm, VANAJA is a triumph of determination over obstacles. Bhukya is a remarkable screen presence, Milton Kam's cinematography is rich and vivid, and the lengthy sequences in which Vanaja begins to master the traditional discipline of Kuchipudi vividly convey the stylized beauty of India's classical dance traditions.
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