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'Vanaja': Cinderella of the caste system

A director's student project recalls Charles Dickens as well as Western fairy-tale lore.

September 14, 2007|Sid Smith | Chicago Tribune

"Vanaja," a film exploring the tensions of the caste system in contemporary rural India, boasts a compelling story on-screen and off.

It tells of a 14-year-old girl who takes on domestic work in the home of a wealthy landlady, both to aid her impoverished, alcoholic father and to fulfill her own dream of mastering the classic art of Kuchipudi dance.

Off camera, "Vanaja" is the work of Columbia University student Rajnesh Domalpalli, the movie's director, who wrote the script for a class and shot the movie mostly with amateurs for his thesis. In India, he says, he battled bureaucracy and the southern Indian region's so-called Tollywood establishment (the Telugu-language version of Bollywood) to unearth performers not jaded by high theatrics.

"Vanaja" can be enjoyed without that background. It's a touching, believable, often funny but ultimately sad tale of how one class can take advantage of another, even in the guise of patronizing benevolence. The cagey, ambitious Vanaja (played with pert humor and empathy by Mamatha Bhukya) slyly wins over the stern landlady (Urmila Dammannagari), who begrudgingly begins to instruct her in classical dance and music.

That Cinderella tale is abruptly interrupted by the return of the landlady's son (Karan Singh), a dumb but handsome would-be politician who rapes Vanaja, unleashing a series of dismal developments and the birth of a baby boy.

Though sometimes shifting abruptly in time, "Vanaja" is an arresting story of modern-day hardship and class exploitation, recalling Charles Dickens as well as Western fairy-tale lore. Domalpalli's settings are ultra-real in detail and color, from the crude, almost feudal deprivations of Vanaja's dirt-floor background to the stately rituals and autocratic entitlement of the well-to-do. Yet, to the movie's credit, Dammannagari's portrait of the landlady includes moments of sympathy and grace.

Heightening the story's fable-like feel are the compelling dance performances, which are presented straightforwardly as rehearsals or concert outings. These provide artistic gloss on the harsh story and a showcase for the fleet-footed, gestural Bhukya, who learned the Kuchipudi art in a crash course in the director's basement.

"Vanaja" also shines with a tapestry of colorful characters, including Vanaja's father, lovable but sad, and her plucky best friend, whose father, a superstitious holy man, looks to his elephant as a psychic arbiter. This is a movie exotic in look but recognizable in truth, the venture of a novice filmmaker very much ready for prime time.


"Vanaja." MPAA rating: unrated. Sexual situations, nudity. In Telugu with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes. In selected theaters.

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