Vanaja, 2006 (Telugu)

Directed by: Rajnesh Domalpalli

This was my first foray into two different genres of Indian Cinema: Southern, and Art House/Parallel. And oh, how I loved it!

This film was the “final project” of Domalpalli’s Master of Fine Arts at Columbia University. For a debut, and a student debut at that, from a software engineer turned film maker I was more than impressed. Domalpalli has a great eye for color composition, subtlety and scene layout. This film was delicious eye candy.

The story was hard to swallow. Vanjana is a poor, lower caste girl who goes to work in the landlady’s house. She secures the position becuase she is smart, blunt and honest. The landlady is a retired teacher of Kuchipudiand agrees to teach the art form to Vanaja after she loses to the girl in a bet. At night Vanaja undergoes house of grueling training in music, rhythm and intricate dance steps, and during the day slaves over the house and the goats.

When the landlady’s son Shekhar returns home from the United States the young Vanaja finds him attractive.
Shekhar eventually comes to Vanaja’s room and rapes her*. When Radhamma (the maid/confidant of the Landlady and nanny to Shekhar) finds her crying she instructs her to keep it a secret, but offers affection and pity in a motherly way.

A few months later Vajana discovers she is pregnant, and duty-bound, Radhamma tells the landlady just who put the girl in this state. The landlady drags Shekhar out of his room by his hair and forces him to look at Vanaja and the state he has put her in. Repeatedly she cries: “She’s only a girl!”. Vajana is only 15. The landlady, Radhamma, her father and firends all beg her to abort, but she refuses and instead moves out of town with her father and best friend during her prgnancy.

Vanaja’s decision to keep the baby is based on her desire for justice. She believes that the physical evidence of the rape will distroy Shekhar’s politcal amitions and save her from socail scorn. Vanaja stuggles with the love for her child and the disgust in her situation. She all but neglects the child until it is taken into the landlady’s house to be reared there. Vanaja’s love for her son brings her to the landlady’s doorstep with a hearth wrenching plea to work in the house again, so that she may be near her son. She becomes the servant once again, and takes up her dancing instruction as well.

While it is not explained to the viewer how the landlady and her son excused away the addition of a child into their house, it is made mention often that the mother died in childbirth, thus causing Vanaja to become rightfully upset with the landlady and Shekhur.

Shekhur seems to want to redeem himself, and tries to make an effort at friendship and quasi-fatherly affection. Though he laments that his son is “too dark” and genuinely seems to seek forgiveness from Vanaja, he refuses to marry her because of her lower position.

In the end, Vanaja finally leaves her son in the care of the landlday becasue it was the best option for her son. By this time Vanaja seems numb to emotion and unable to come up with a way to have the best of both worlds: her son, and her lfie. The ending scene shows Vanaja riding on an elephant with her best friend, acting very much like the 15 year old she is.

The reviews and other synopses I read led me to believe that the affair between Vanaja and Shekhur was a romantic one, but seeing how it was depicted on film suggests rape, so that’s how I interpreted it.  At first I was very pleased with the landlady’s response to her sons actions, trying to shame him but then when she kept acting like nothing that traumatic had really happened I got peeved.

In general I was very confused by the landlady’s actions against Vanaja. One moment she was motherly and tender, the other the demanding dance teacher and in another was a cruel destroyer of childhood self-esteem and personal worth. It made me want to pull my hair out! Did she like the girl or not? Did she want to help her or not? Obviously the landlady herself made the relationship complicated by giving Vanaja opportunities but holding her back because of her lower caste, and felling somewhat resentful that she either couldn’t share Vanaja with the public, or that she was even helping the girl at all.

This film cast actors that had never been in films before, and I was greatly impressed by all the their efforts. It was as if the director had just walked the streets of a little town and plucked up people he thought were right. I give my congrats to the girl who played Vanaja, she did a superb job and was able to juxtapose the innocence of a school girl, with the hardness of a woman who had been wronged. By 15 this character had experienced life in a cruel, seemingly hopeless dose. Living with her son and pretending not to be his mother had to be the most incredibly difficult thing to do, but I commend her with her decision to leave her baby in the care of the landlady so that he could have a good upbringing, rather than run away with him and fight for survival every day.

Vanaja was beautifully shot, the execution was beautiful. The score was interesting, using mostly folk songs, light instrumentation and most often, silence. The use of silence can be very powerful or very boring.  Domallpali struck the right balance and the effect was wonderful. I actually felt as if I lived in this sleepy town.

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2 thoughts on “Vanaja, 2006 (Telugu)

  1. I guess there's ambiguity portrayed in the landlady's actions because being a woman she can empathize with the situation Vanaja is going through and vanaja is just 15.Also,the landlady don't want to make vanaja her daughter in law because of vanaja's age factor and she being from a lower caste(the landlady is orthodox). But they want to keep the child because it is their own blood.It is nice that you forayed into telugu films.I suggest you see BOMMARILLU,an amazing telugu romcom starring Siddharth and Genelia. Its music is awesome.

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