Thursday, October 8, 2009


Sometimes the sum of the parts is greater than the whole, and that's how I felt about writer/director Rajnesh Domalpalli's film Vanaja (2007). The film has many virtues. Among them are the excellent and largely nonprofessional cast, and especially the radiant performance of Mamatha Shukya in the title role. Also striking are the beautiful images of cinematographer Milton Karn: the gorgeous saturated colors of fabrics and painted walls, and the stunning landscapes of South India. But chief among the film's pleasures are the Kuchipudi dance sequences performed by Shukya with astonishing skill.

Vanaja (Shukya) is the vivacious adolescent daughter of the struggling fisherman Somayya (Ramachandriah Marikanti). To help her father, and to learn the intricacies of Kuchipudi dance, Vanaja becomes a servant of the local Brahmin landlord, Rama Devi (Urmila Dammannagari). But Vanaja catches the eye of Rama Devi's son Shekhar (Karan Singh), who rapes and impregnates her. She quickly discovers that the wealthy and high-caste are immune from justice. Ultimately, Vanaja faces a choice between keeping her child (and sustaining her dreams of becoming a dancer) and escaping from the cruelties of Rama Devi's household.

The DVD extras include a delightful interview with Shukya, in which she displays her quick intelligence, mischievous charm and brilliant smile. In that interview she says that in her view Vanaja triumphs at the end of the film. For us the ending was far more ambiguous, and Vanaja's future seems highly uncertain.

Shukya's grace and assurance in the dance sequences suggest a lifetime of study, but in the interview she reveals that before the filming began she had only had a year of training. The DVD extras include all the unabridged dance sequences from the film, and they are very much worth seeing in their entirety. Even if the film's disparate elements don't quite cohere, Shukya's performance as the wronged but resilient Vanaja is unforgettable.


  1. Oh! I'm just seeing this now yaar. I loved this film, so pretty and sad and colorful, and as you point out, "the gorgeous saturated colors of fabrics and painted walls, and the stunning landscapes of South India." I must admit I was a bit stunned to see Karan Singh in the shower, even though this was an art house film I was still shocked.

    Glad to see this one written up here.

    All the best!

  2. Sita-ji, when I wrote about the stunning landscapes of South India I had forgotten about Karan Singh's backside :). But you're right that it is a shocking moment. I love Vanaja's expression as she spies on Shekhar--and then her dismay when she realizes that he's seen her in the mirror.

    That scene is also part of what makes the film so sad. While it suggests that Vanaja has her own pleasures and desires, they all wind up getting used against her by those more powerful than she is (after all, it's her desire to dance that brings her into Rama Devi's household as a servant in the first place). Vanaja is a lovely film, but also a heartbreaking one.