This movie opens in NY today. If you’re anywhere near Manhattan, PLEASE go see it. And if you’re not in NYC, just hold on for a bit, because it’s coming to your city soon.
For me, the pleasure of watching Mamata Bhukya dancing in the lead role would be enough. But the petite teen is also a wonderful actress, and you know what? Two years ago, she was a student in school and had never acted before in her young life.
Rajnesh Domalpalli, who already had an IIT-Bombay degree and years of experience in Silicon Valley under his belt, returned to his native Andhra Pradesh to make his first feature film, part of his MFA thesis for Columbia University, and against all better advice, he was determined to use non-actors.
Mamata almost didn’t even get to audition because her hair was too short.
In Vanaja, as the title character, she’s the plucky teenage daughter of a poor fisherman in coastal AP. To help keep their little family afloat (her mother died years ago), she quits school and gets a job with the local landlady, Rama Devi, a wealthy widow and former Kuchipudi dancer. Vanaja convinces her new boss to teach her to dance, and the protegé turns out to be a quick study and extremely talented.
All’s well until Rama Devi’s son, Shekhar, returns from the U.S. to comply with his mother’s wish that he run for local office (“He’ll be Chief Minister one day,” she declares.) and sparks fly when he and Vanaja lay eyes on each other. The attraction is real, but she’s still 15 and wavering between childhood and being a woman. (Shekhar is in his 20s.)
Vanaja inadvertently embarasses him in public and he turns on her, bringing issues of wealth and poverty and gender and caste to the fore, and her life is never the same afterward. The young girl struggles to make her way and forge a way ahead, using her own strength and resourcefulness, in situations where you sense the cards are stacked against her.
The back story on the making of the film is material enough for another movie. Stayed tuned for an interview with the director very shortly.
Special bonus for those of you who go to see Vanaja at the Cinema Village this weekend: Rajnesh Domalpalli and Mamata Bhukya will be present after the 5:10 and 7:40pm shows.
See it or skip it?
See it! Mamata is simply amazing to behold, the other actors too are all solid as well. Yes, Vanaja’s struggles can be sad and uncomfortable to confront, but the overall beauty of the film and the love that the director has for the region and for his subjects and the arts shines through clearly.
I had the sense in the second half of the film that it could have been tightened up every-so-slightly, but this is only a small complaint, and not one that should deter you from going. This truly is a special film and I’m so glad to have seen it twice in the last few weeks.