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A Tango of Self Discovery and Class Warfare

September 2007
A Tango of Self Discovery and Class Warfare


Emerging Pictures Corp.

Running time: 111 minutes

Telugu with English subtitles

Sometimes I look back with gratitude at the opportunities that I might have missed. When I was offered a chance to attend a screening of Vanaja, I was initially hesitant, as I had imagined the film to be a dry, austere study of the rigors of learning Kuchipudi dance. I am glad I overruled my reluctance and went to the screening. What a missed opportunity it would have been otherwise!

The film's namesake does want to learn to dance, and we follow her as she pursues that dream. But Vanaja (played by Mamata Bhukya) is first a playful, coltish, 15-year-old girl. Before we ever see her assume her first stance, director Rajnesh Domalpalli reveals that she's the only child of a struggling fisherman in coastal Andhra Pradesh who owes money for his boat and Vanaja's school fees. His daughter leaves school to seek work at the home of an imperious widow, Rama Devi (Urmila Dammannagari), who is a former singer, musician and Kuchipudi dancer.

Once installed in the home of the wealthy Landlady (as villagers refer to her), Vanaja demonstrates such pluck and confidence that she charms her way into Rama Devi's tutelage. Her progress is impressive. (Mamata Bhukya is a slender, long-limbed young woman whose fluid moves belie the fact that she only learned to dance in the year after she was discovered and cast in the role.)

Rama Devi's muscle-bound and vain son, Shekhar (Karan Singh), returns from the U.S. to fulfill his mother's aspirations of a political career for him. There is an immediate spark of attraction between Vanaja and the twenty-something would-be politico, in spite of the fact that the girl is yet balancing the line between adolescence and adulthood.

Events in Vanaja's life take a dark twist when she embarrasses Shekhar publicly without initially realizing the impact of what she's done. Issues of power, socioeconomic status and politics come into play, as well as the assumed rights and privileges of people like Rama Devi and her son, versus the more limited sphere of what the poor can dream of and aspire to.

If the first half of the film is about Vanaja's playful youth and graceful beauty and her trajectory from novice to talented dancer, the second is about how she struggles to deal with some very adult challenges, again while veering between child and woman. Domalpalli shows that regardless of Vanaja's talent as a dancer and her beauty, there are still inescapable realities of wealth and politics and caste, to say nothing of attitudes towards women. The young actor manages to convey both with ease, gliding from a flirtatious girl, who is realizing the power her beauty affords her though not entirely aware of all its consequences, back to frightened child who doesn't fully comprehend.

The second half of the film might have benefited from a few edits to either shorten it slightly or better delineate the timeline of events. However, in spite of this and whatever harsh realities the characters and we the audience must deal with, the film is a gem not to be missed. It is buoyed by all the scenes in which Mamata Bhukya dances, and by the rest of the star cast of amateurs who appear polished like pros.

It seems impossible that Mamata could reach such a level of skill in both acting and dance in only one year. She was almost passed over for the role, as Domalpalli discounted her because her hair was too short. Had Mamata's teacher not urged him to hear her sing, we would have all missed out on the discovery of this luminous young girl, and Vanaja would have been a very different film.

Rajnesh Domalpalli is all the more remarkable as director and screenwriter when you consider the context in which he made Vanaja. Not just his debut film, it is actually also his thesis for Columbia University. And, as Ira Deutchman, Columbia film professor and CEO of Emerging Pictures, revealed at the New York premiere, Domalpalli pursued it while deciding to ignore his advice. Domalpalli wanted to make a feature film (Deutchman advised in favor of something shorter), he wanted to use non-actors, and he wanted to shoot on 35 millimeter film (whereas Deutchman pointed out that there are perfect acceptable digital options).

Here's to a director who believed in his vision, and to opportunities not missed.


[Vanaja is due to open in Atlanta on October 5 at the Landmark Midtown Theater.]

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