"Vanaja": Women, Art and the Caste System By Oscar Peyrou

in 31st Toronto International Film Festival

by Oscar Peyrou

Vanaja, the Indian film by Rajnesh Domalpalli presented at the last Toronto International Film Festival, is, technically speaking, a weak movie. But it is relevant and strong both socially and politically, due to its brave denunciation of the obsolete caste system which doubly discriminates against women.

The mistakes of the film are understandable, considering it is the first full-length one shot by the filmmaker and also his graduation thesis for New York’s Columbia University.

In the film there are obvious editing errors, dialogues leading nowhere, and a certain confusion in the direction of the actors, but the main problem is a lack of synthesis, which would have greatly improved the final result.

Domalpalli nevertheless shows his partially hidden talent through flashes of cinematographic art. The artistic composition of some scenes resembles pictures, and dance, music and singing are wisely combined, with occasionally splendid results.

Vanaja analyses and denounces the social barriers between casts in rural South India, where even now they are the strongest of the country. In this frame, the coming of age of a young girl is explored.

Vanaja (Mamatha Bhukya) is the 14 year-old daughter of a low-caste fisherman struggling with dwindling catches and mounting debt. A sooth-sayer predicts that she will be a great dancer, so she goes to work in the house of the local landlady, Rama Devi (Urmila Dammannagari). She intends to learn Kuchipudi dance while she earns her living as a farmhand and then helping in the kitchen.

She is so gracious that her mistress invites her to play a game of ashta chamma. When she realizes that Rama Devi doesn’t like to lose, Vanaja deliberately gives up her game, securing the landlady’s mentorship in music and dance. Vanaja excels at the art, and seems to be on a steadily ascending path when Rama Devi’s 23 year old son Shekhar (Karan Singh) — handsome, muscular and rather insecure, returns from the US to run for local political office.

They fall in love, but a problem arises when Vanaja shows she is intellectually superior to Shekhar, humiliating him in front of his mother. She is pitched into a conflict which involves class, family and personality and she finds only one escape.

In the website of the film, the director said: “Vanaja was written as a project submission for my first semester class at Columbia University in the Fall of 2001. Inspired by a child’s scream in the film Sophie’s Choice, it was to be a tale about mother-child separation, but as it developed over the next three semesters, it gradually took on the elements of class distinction and conflict that continue to infuse our society and culture even today.”

The “academic” character of the film is revealed by the director’s desire to “tell everything,” even the unnecessary, which diminishes the story’s drama. (Ambiguity, when well used, can produce extraordinary effects.)

“Pre-production,” says Domalpalli, “began early in 2004. The first hurdle was finding appropriate talent and crew in a state where most filming was big-budget Tollywood — the Telugu language version of Bollywood that was particular to our state of Andhra Pradesh. Given the rural nature of the story, and the tendency of most local acting to lean towards the theatrical, it was clear that non-actors drawn from hutments, labor camps and the vast Indian middle class were the right choice. They would have to be put through lengthy acting training, the lead would have to learn Kuchipudi dance — no easy task, and the landlady would have to learn Carnatic classical music — if the film were to have any sense of authenticity at all.”

Looking for non-professional actors and actresses, the staff made flyers that would be inserted into newspapers at night, canvassed at schools, visited local hutments and tried to persuade dwellers to come for auditions — while simultaneously combating rumors that we were after their kidneys, pleading with putting up posters etc. “When we wanted to place an ad in the newspapers for the landlady, we found to our surprise that we couldn’t do so. So instead, we decided to advertise for household help: ‘Female, aged 35 to 50, needed to care for elderly parents.’ When unsuspecting ladies turned up for an interview, conversations would inadvertently steer towards film, what a wonderful art acting was, and how rarely ordinary people got a chance to prove their talent,” said the filmmaker.

“When we visited her school, the lead, Mamatha Bhukya, almost didn’t get selected. Her hair was too short. But at her teacher’s insistence, she sang a song about Gandhi-Tata (the father of the Indian Independence movement) so sweetly, that it was impossible not to short-list her.”

The shooting was full of difficulties, which the director speaks about with humor: “Location scouting was another challenge. Finding the landlady’s mansion, a building grand enough, stable and secluded enough to meet the needs of the script was turning out to be an impossibility given the sad state of disrepair that most rural bungalows have fallen into. Finally however, princely connections to erstwhile rulers of tiny kingdoms proved invaluable in securing a building in Bobbili, a town close to the coast. The problem was that it was full of snakes, overrun by vegetation and bats, and sections of the building were too weak to support filming. A team led by Nagulu Busigampala, a tailor, turned gardener, turned chauffeur, turned production designer took over the job of cleaning, repairing, planting, painting and furnishing the place.”

“They assembled a chicken coup in the yard, a pen for goats, painted the walls and roped in locals to bring in their livestock to trample the place and make it look inhabited. As news spread, people were more than willing to bring in sacks of rice husk, bricks, bullock carts, farming tools, hay stacks and more. They didn’t just loan them for the shoot, they wanted to act as extras. Our surprised crew warned them that they would have to pass a very severe test called ‘no looking into camera’ and save a mishap or two, before we knew it they had mastered the art – and no amount of camera moving would ever trick them into it.”

“Finding an elephant was another nightmare. We wanted to find one locally to save it a truck ride. An agent in Mumbai promised to get us a temple elephant close to the coastal city of Vizag — a day’s journey by bus from our hometown of Hyderabad. So we sent a crew, parking ourselves in a hotel and waiting until he arrived. When we called him on his cell-phone, we were assured that he was minutes away and held up in traffic. Hours later, there was still no sign of him. Repeated calls over that day and the next gave us explanations that he had to run here or there on urgent missions trying to locate our beast. Each ended with assurances that we were almost there. A few days later, on a hunch, we called him from another telephone, pretending to be another party, and to no surprise, we found that he hadn’t even departed Mumbai. Needless to say, we settled for another agent and a longer truck ride.”

“Dealing with the bureaucracy was very similar, except that the elephant in the room was the money that had to be passed under the table. All this was indeed a hard learning curve, but we were learning fast, given that the shoot was scheduled to start in a month — January of 2005.”

Rajnesh Domalpalli comes from Hyderabad, the capital of Andhra Pradesh in South India. He spent his childhood in small rural towns associated with dam construction projects where his father worked as a civil engineer for the government. After completing his studies in 1986 he worked as a Computer Engineer in California’s Silicon Valley before deciding to take up Film at Columbia University in New York and graduating with an MFA in 2006.

Vanaja is not only his first feature but also his thesis at Columbia. Rajnesh loves writing, and feels that it is at the core of a good film.