“Vanaja” is a groundbreaking film about caste, culture, class and most importantly the feelings and emotions of a young mother, and a must-see for movie lovers and those who appreciate art and culture.
Vanaja, the titular heroine, is a young 14 year-old daughter of a poor, low-caste fisherman, struggling with dwindling catches and mounting debt, who yearns to learn the Kuchipudi style of dancing. She uses her wits and smarts to worm her way into the home of a rich landlady in the village, Rama Devi, in hopes of learning Kuchipudi dance while earning her keep.
Vanaja uses her intelligence to get the attention of the landlady and manages to learn music and dance from her. She excels at the art, and seems to be on a steadily ascending path when Shekhar (Karan Singh), Rama Devi’s 23-year-old son – handsome, muscular and rather insecure, returns from America to run for local political elections.
Sexual chemistry is ignited between Shekhar and Vanaja (still a minor at 15), as flirtation and innuendo bloom. But, the situation suddenly turns ugly when Vanaja’s superior intellect pits her against Shekhar in a public incident, which ultimately humiliates him in front of his mother. Matters escalate, spiraling downwards and she is pitched into a tale of class, family and animus from which there is only one escape.
“Vanaja” is not only the writer and director Rajnesh Domalapalli’s first feature but also his thesis at the Film School at Columbia University. While some critics call this movie a glorified documentary, the story line is delightfully simple, yet excellent and realistic. Exemplary acting by novice actors make this a must-see film. The caste system, culture clashes, women’s rights are portrayed candidly and credibly.
This is a story of a young girl who must face the harsh realities of existence, very early on in life. In becoming a woman, she must make difficult decisions that are best for others but not necessarily the greatest for her. And her choices will eventually leave her devastated and lonely, as she makes a selfless sacrifice even many adults are not capable of.
–written by Visi Tilak