(Mamatha Bhukya, Urmila Dammannagari, et al / DVD / NR / 2008 / Vanaja The Film, LLC)
Overview: 'Vanaja' tells the story of a 14-year-old girl (Mamatha Bhukya), after whom the title is named. Too poor to afford a pencil to use at school, she lives with her widowed father (Marikanti Ramachandriah), a mediocre fisherman with increasing debt. When he can no longer provide for his daughter, he convinces a wealthy landlady named Rama Devi (Urmila Dammannagari) to take his daughter in and put her to work. Fortunately, this landlady takes a liking to the bright, young Vanaja, quickly promotes her to work alongside her primary aide, the cantankerous cook Radhamma (Krishnamma Gundimalla), and agrees to also teach her Kuchipudi dance on the side.
DVD Verdict: Lovers of foreign cinema will not want to miss this simple,yet moving story of a young girl from an inferior class who wants to make something of herself through dance. Music, dance, color all add to the splendor of this film, but what really makes it work is the strong performance of the lead character - a young girl who challenges her position in society by seeking out a great teacher of Indian classical dance. After some difficulty, she persuades the teacher to give her private lessons at no charge.
Problems occur when she disobeys her teacher, and when she attracts the sexual interest of the teacher's son. Everything about this film feels authentic. It is neither a scathing comment on the plight of the poor or the caste system, nor an overly sentimentalized version of a person overcoming her social disabilities.
Indeed, despite having some conventions of the coming of age genre, Vanaja is concerned more on life than on life lessons. The only moment in which the film becomes clichéd is with a scene of "Show me yours; I'll show you mine" between the young lady and a slightly older postman. If the gender discovery/sexual curiosity is a must, another scene, with Vanaja spying on Rama Devi's twenty-something son, Shekhar (Karan Singh), to his delight, is more successful.
But with regard the films massive off-screen achievements, the dances and music are made even more incredible with the knowledge that prior to making Vanaja, young Bhukya was unskilled at Kuchipudi, and dance in general, and Dammannagari had never before played an instrument. Both their biographies, as well as those of the other amateur actors, are really worth checking out, and thankfully the film's website (please do check it out with the link below!) includes these background stories. In conclusion the film looks good on this DVD. The colors pop convincingly despite the budget constraints, and there are no obvious problems with the source or the transfer. The audio does an excellent job with the evocative music and Hindi language. This is a Widescreen Presentation (1.85:1) enhanced for 16x9 TVs, and comes with the Special Features of:
Four Short Films - from director Rajnesh Domalpalli
2 Introductions - by director Rajnesh Domalpalli and actress Mamatha Bhukya