2006 // India // Rajnesh Domalpalli // November 14, 2008 // Theatrical Print (Landmark Plaza Frontenac Cinema)
Overflowing with aimless melodrama, Rajnesh Domalpalli's sprawled (though not sprawling) Vanaja is covered in the fingerprints of Dickens. Set in the Indian state of Andrha Padresh, the films follows the luminous Vanaja, a skinny, low-caste fifteen-year-old brought as a servant into the household of her Brahmin landlady, where the precocious girl hopes to learn the art of Kuchipudi dance. The story slogs through endless back-and-forth that isn't worth recounting in detail: friendship, discovery, temptation, rape, pregnancy, politics, blackmail, and death. It's not that Vanaja is incoherent—first-time director Domalpalli steers this behemoth well enough—just unnecessarily convoluted and thematically sketchy. In short, there's an undisciplined whiff to it, all the more frustrating given that Domalpalli discovers some gorgeous sights, especially in the small, human details. The film's dramatic heft relies overwhelmingly on the strength of Mamatha Bhukya's performance as Vanaja, an eye-catching, textured portrayal despite is unevenness as written and delivered. It says something that the central pleasure of Vanaja is Bhukya's hypnotic Kuchipudi dance routines. Domalpalli is most confident when reveling in the aesthetic joy of this gawky adolescent conjuring something so exquisite from mere motion and color.