Directed by Rajnesh Domalpalli. August 2007, India. Unrated: 111 min.
(Originally published in buzz magazine on 10/2007)
The title character, a fifteen-year-old lower caste girl from South India, begins work for the local landlady in hopes to learn the art of Kuchipudi, a classic Indian dance. Throughout the movie, Vanaja’s dance moves reflect her reaction to events in her life. When she first begins dance practice after begging the landlady for lessons, her footwork is clumsy and embarrassing. When the landlady’s handsome twenty-something son returns from America, her face lights up and her dance quickens, expressing her excitement at the prospect of new love. After the son steals her innocence by taking her virginity without consent, her dance becomes slow and mournful while verges on bawling. Toward the end of the movie, her grim determination to keep her own illegitimate child shines through in her dance’s violent stabbing motions.
If you’re tired of the traditional Hollywood standards for how movies work, then Vanaja will be a refreshing change of pace. Filmed entirely in India by an Indian producer with an all-Indian cast, Vanaja illustrates the fragility of life in ways unfamiliar to most American moviegoers. The screen is awash with color combinations uncommon in Hollywood films: the butter-yellow hue of the dry cracked earth; the bold turquoise of the landlady’s saris and her mansion’s interior decoration; the clashing yellow and red of Vanaja’s servant garb. Many of film’s dance sequences begin with the camera showing only Vanaja at first, implying that she is dancing alone, but then zooms out and surprises us with an audience. Vanaja also concludes without the kind of tied-up-neatly-in-a-bow resolution that one generally expects from Hollywood movies. Instead of giving viewers satisfaction, it challenges them to speculate on Vanaja’s future.Despite some iffy acting from minor characters, its meaningful depth and technical uniqueness earns Vanaja three stars out of four.