Amazing Dancing, Complex Plot

When it comes to caste systems and the belief that some people are superior to others, I am on the ignorant side. Not that I am perfectly altruistic and prejudice free—far from it—but with governments built on the foundation of the necessity of separating the haves from the have-nots, I am philosophically in the dark.

Vanaja is the “thesis” of Rajnesh Domalpalli, a student at Columbia University in New York. Born in India, Domalpalli writes of what he knows, penning a moving story of a low-caste young lady whose alcoholic fisherman father “sells” her domestic services to the Landlady to supplement his failures as a fisherman (and father). After a fortuneteller mentions that one day bands will be fighting for the honor of playing for the girl’s dancing, Vanaja begins dreaming of circumventing the caste ladder as a dancer.

Urmila Dammannagari as Rama Devi in Vanaja

Fortunately, the Landlady, a wise woman (and former professional dancer) who is paradoxically proud and merciful, takes her in. Vanaja’s childlike brazenness earns her the Landlady’s trust, as well as music then dancing lessons. The strong and determined young woman proves to be a good student, learning the structured and expressive dances with purpose and passion. Unfortunately, when the Landlady’s son returns from America to run for office, lust, love, control, and caste are put to the test, and the audience is left wondering about who was actually born to whom, and who has spent life in low-caste service of the Landlady as a way to remain close to a child whom the Landlady claims as her own child (or, in Vanaja’s case, grandchild).

One of the things that Domalpalli does extremely well in his film is capture the tension not between the castes themselves, but between individuals facing the class system. As low caste, Vanaja is prohibited from choosing her own husband; even when the Landlady’s son (to whom Vanaja is attracted) gets Vanaja pregnant, there are numerous troubles and issues to be dealt with: Should she terminate the pregnancy? What if the Landlady finds out the truth? Why did her son (significantly older than Vanaja’s pubescent fifteen years) take advantage of her protege? What should be done with the baby once it is born?

The rest of the film explores the complexities of the caste system—disregarding human desires in order to maintain a system built upon privilege and its absence.

Not being Indian, I find it difficult to judge the cadence of the movie. While it carried itself well, the end seemed just a bit slower and lengthier—though my husband and I agreed that the pacing may have been somehow related to the rhythm of Indian dancing. While it never reached anything close to plodding or drawn-out, it did seem to wind down rather than conclude.

For a college project, Vanaja is incredibly well done. Domalpalli’s casting of amateurs certainly demonstrates a natural talent for bringing out what he wants from his actors. His camerawork is also noteworthy , particularly toward the end, when he employs some subtly abstract editing to spice up an essential dance scene.

Beware: Vanaja is not a flimsy romance. It is a full-length feature film that reveals much about something many Westerners do not understand. The dancing and music are enough to warrant watching Domalpalli’s first feature, regardless of whether it was an assignment or not.

Vanaja is not rated, but due to the nature of some sexuality (including a rape scene) and nudity, I’d rate it at about a PG-15 or so. It’s not too much to handle, but it does cover some very weighty subjects including and surrounding the sexual themes.

Courtesy of a regional publicist, Jenn viewed a screener of Vanaja.