Directed by Rajnesh Domalpalli
Studio: Emerging Pictures
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 anamorphic
Running Time: 112 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 Hindi
MSRP: $ 29.95
Release Date: May 20, 2008
Review Date: May 18, 2008
A teenaged girl’s coming of age is a story that’s perhaps too overly familiar for true cinematic innovation, but director Rajnesh Domalpalli has concentrated specifically on detailing the culture of the rural area of southern India where he has set this teenaged girl’s story. Thus, Vanaja tells a fairly routine tale against a fascinating and unique backdrop for American viewers. It’s the Indian heritage with its caste system and unforgiving cultural biases that’s the most interesting thing about this prize winning first feature from the writer-director Rajnesh Domalpalli.
Mamatha Bhukya has done herself proud as Vanaja, a cheeky fifteen year old only daughter who leaves school to work in the home of her district’s female landlord (Urmila Dammannagari). Vanaja has been told by a seer that she will become a famous dancer, and as her landlord has a reputation as a legendary dance teacher, her hopes are that she can learn Kuchipudi dancing from her. Eventually, landlord Rama Devi takes to the spirited young girl and begins teaching her, and the child learns quickly. Devi’s errant, spoiled son Shekar (Karan Singh), however, finds the young girl fetching as well and one night lets his emotions get the best of him and rapes her. Once it become clear that a child is on the way, Vanaja has some decisions to make, first about keeping the child (everyone advises an abortion) and later about whether to attempt to raise the child herself or to sell the child to the Devi family for them to raise (marriage between the two is out of the question; she‘s of the servant class). In much the way of Sophie’s Choice, no decision is without devastating consequences for the young girl, and even after making her choices, she has constant changes of heart that drive her to distraction.
The cast of the film is largely made up of nonprofessionals, but they do masterful jobs with difficult roles, especially Mamatha Bhukya as Vanaja, Urmila Dammannagari as the landlord, and Ramachandriah Marikanti as Vanaja’s alcoholic father. Another very intriguing character who might have figured even more importantly in the narrative is a local boy who alternately teases and tempts Vanaja, the mailboy Ram Babu played by Krishna Garlapati. Their scenes are among the film’s most playful and ultimately most moving. Karan Singh pouts and preens acceptably as the loutish Shekhar.
Mamatha Bhukya participates in five amazing dance sequences in the film, made even more remarkable when one learns that she knew nothing about Kuchipudi dancing until she was cast in the movie. Rajnesh Domalpalli films most of her performance pieces straight on with little in the way of camera movement, alternating shots of her full figure with medium and close shots. However, when the time comes for her final dance, the camera moves in for more close-ups to see her fiery disposition, and the editing becomes much zippier to add to the emotional resonance of the sequence. Domalpalli also employs some creative camerawork during a burial ceremony as the camera swoops slowly in and up above the grieving crowd surrounding a funeral pyre.
So, a story which could have been relatively trite on the page gains tremendously in emotional vibrancy with the director’s intensive concentration on showing us traditions in music, dance, and societal mores that are unique to many of our own experiences.
The film is presented in a 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer. Colors are nicely saturated and make for a vivid picture, but sharpness is only average through much of the movie. Close-ups can convey some of the detail that is present in the best transfers, but focus is not always all it could be. Contrast is at acceptable levels, and blacks are also at acceptable levels. The white subtitles are large and easy to read. The film has been divided into 9 chapters.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track doesn’t always get the most out of the music-heavy mix. There are occasional ambient sounds in the surround channels, but LFE is nonexistent. Still, the sound is without noticeable digital artifacts and has some nice nuance.
Director Rajnesh Domalpalli provides a 6 ½ minute introduction to the movie detailing his aims for the film and citing his inspirations. The feature is in 4:3.
Star Mamatha Bhukya contributes a 10 ¾-minute interview where we learn about some of her background, how she got cast in the movie, and her aspirations now that this film has been such a success. It’s also in 4:3.
The disc presents the five dance sequences from the film unabridged and in anamorphic widescreen.
Four short student films by Director Rajnesh Domalpalli are included on the disc. Shot on 4:3 video, the four films are The Fisherman’s Daughter (13 minutes), Firecrackers (10 minutes), Poison in the Well (11 minutes), and Just for Her (14 minutes). You’ll notice some actors from Vanaja also in some of these videos.
The film’s original theatrical trailer is presented in anamorphic widescreen and runs 1 ¾ minutes.
An insert in the DVD case shows reduced sized prints of director Rajnesh Domalpalli’s artwork.
An unusual view of a civilization in some ways very familiar and in other ways completely alien to our own, Vanaja is a film of some distinction. For those interested in investigating a melodrama set in rural India, the movie would definitely be worth a rental.