Vanaja (2006)
Rajnesh Domalpalli

“Can you believe it? Your own mother used you. Disgusting. ”


Browsing through Rajnesh Domalpalli’s cine résumé, we see more than two dozen awards from various film festivals across the world, against just one film. The sole bullet point in his filmography reads Vanaja (2006), a quiet little film that has conquered its own domain, won its own set of hearts with its sheer brilliance in thematic and visual execution and perhaps gained an entry to the list of best films of that year.

Vanaja opens with a Pulp Fiction like definition of its title – “(a) Water Lily (b) Wild at Heart | Sludge Born, Struggling | Rising | You Bloom So True”. And that is what the screenplay reveals as it measuredly blooms out. Vanaja is a girl untethered by the notions of class, caste, gender and age. Though it shouldn’t be said that she shoots her mouth off, she does express herself firmly when required and restrains herself when it is not. Born in a fisherman family, Vanaja (Mamatha Bhukya) loses her mother at a very young age and her only memory of her mother remains not so sweet. We come to know from the first minute that she loves dance and it is the only driving force to her otherwise ordinary (and even depressive) life.

She agrees to work as a maid at the village head’s house where she wins a chance to learn Kuchipudi. She shines, needless to say, and hopes to make it big one day. All is well until the village head’s son returns from the US for contesting in a local election. He is quick to take advantage of Vanaja’s sexual awakening and vulnerability and she becomes pregnant. After evading the criticizing eyes of the society, Vanaja gives birth to a boy who is immediately given shelter at the village head’s house where Vanaja’s father is forced to relinquish claims on the boy. However, Vanaja’s interest in dance never wanes and she continues to learn, while acting as a nanny to her own son. Troubles increase for her when her father dies of drinking and she is left helpless.

The film is probably summed up in the fleeting dream that Vanaja has towards the end of the movie in which her father is buried neck deep in sand as she tries to free him. However, she is being pulled by the local brats using a fishing net as the village head and her son try to put a garland around her neck while glorifying his political victory. This is the point where Domalpalli surreally stresses on the caste system that plagues the nation. Ironically, it is the same diversity (that makes the country so wholesome and tolerant) that plagues it with ideas of caste system and social superiority. Neither is the so-called upper caste able to accept her with open arms because of her assigned caste, nor is Vanaja free to follow her dreams owing to the society that pulls her down time and again.

I am tempted to compare the film with another collaborative effort that released three years before this film – Manish Jha’s Matrubhoomi: A Nation without Women (2003) – for both are independent ventures that deal with exploitation of women in the arcane hinterlands of the country where women are apparently sacred. But what the latter venture shows us in a somber and positively depressing tone, Vanaja does in a very light and easy atmosphere. It is easy to note Domalpalli’s striking and daring use of colours that almost exhaust the visible spectrum. The wildness of Vanaja’s heart seems to be reflected in this fascinating colour festival.

Also worth contrasting with Vanaja is Jason Reitman’s Juno (2007). Both the films deal with similar issues of teen pregnancy and their responsibilities and morals, but are poles apart in their execution and are so culturally unique. True that neither Juno nor Vanaja knows the graveness of the act they are going to commit by relinquishing their claim on the child, but where Vanaja stands apart is the fact that her situation is a function of the uncontrollable factors that include the caste system and the servile mentality of the village’s residents. Juno, on the other hand, is solely responsible for her action and plight that she gladly accepts and so do her parents and the society, and this makes Vanaja’s situation all the more shattering.

Having said that, it is remarkable that Domalpalli never begs for sympathy for Vanaja. It was so easy for him to tilt the audience’s support towards her but he never does that. Even more striking is that he doesn’t even appeal for antipathy towards any of the other characters. The complete absence of a soundtrack reinforces Domalpalli’s stand in handling his characters. The primary reason for this neutrality arises from the grey characters that Domalpalli has meticulously sketched. He never typecasts any of them and [deliberately] draws out the multi-dimensional nature within each character, thereby leaving the audience assessing their various actions and not the characters as a whole. Viewed with any fixed set of morals, all characters appear equally sympathetic and flawed.

Clearly, dance is a vital part in the narrative and Domalpalli employs stretches of complete dance sequences that highlight Vanaja’s state of mind. The songs move from Radha’s pining for Krishna’s attention to the slaying of the demon Mahishasura. It is also interesting to note that Vanaja never goes down after the child birth. All she wants is to take care of her child as its mother and continue her strides in dance. But once she takes her final beating when none of her old friend Radhamma’s predictions come true, she slays her inner demon of servility and moves towards true independence – one that has been hard fought and has demanded a larger than life sacrifice. Discussing the morality of Vanaja’s decisions are out of the scope of this article for it requires more than a knowledge of two hours, but what is sure is that these are choices of immense practicality and rationality.

It will be a crime if I don’t mention the stellar performance of Mamatha Bhukya who can teach any so-called-veteran mainstream actresses a thing or two. Independent films usually suffer from bad non-professional performances but it his essentially Bhukya’s work that takes the film out of that pitfall and elevates it into extraordinary levels. Now, here is a killer of a trivia – Vanaja was made as the final project to a master’s degree in film studies at the Columbia University! And perhaps this is the reason, Vanaja could not make it into the Oscar race (not that the selection panel passes only great films!). If this is the kind of cinema that we get from a student, I am thrilled to imagine what we can expect of him when he is an established filmmaker. Perhaps Domalpalli is the Indian reply to Florian Donnersmarck.