Vanaja: the brightest jewel in the crown of Indian cinema
I cannot stop thinking about Rajnesh Domalpalli's directorial debut feature, order Vanaja. It is astounding not just because they used first-time actors practicing in the basement of the director's house, online or that the director was formerly an IIT-educated software engineer, or even that this is a debut film -- it is astounding because magic in film doesn't bow to pedigree, obeys no simple prescription. It either shows up or it doesn't and when it does, the effect is an ineffable sensation that might most accurately be described as joy.
Vanaja is the story of a 15-year old girl who is a servant in a wealthy landlord's household. With a talent for dancing she barters her time doing chores in return for dancing lessons from the mistress of the house. When the landlady's charming and pampered son arrives from America, the plot thickens. The actress who plays Vanaja invokes a child, a mother, an angry Draupadi, an amorous Sita at different points.
Every note in the film is pitch perfect. There is an incredible restraint and respect for the audience that runs throughout the film, a lack of self-consciousness that I find incredibly refreshing. It most obviously does not cater to the Bollywood crowd but equally importantly, it does not pander to genteel Indo-American New Yorker-reading types either, who have grown comfortable with one-liners in scripts that paint superficial pictures of conglomerate Indian people. This film on the contrary explodes with authenticity with its portrayal of unforgettable characters and the ethical dilemmas of real human beings. Difficult subject matter leaves us, the viewers, feeling enlightened and not defeated. The last scene is surprising and majestic. If you see one independent film this year, run, don't walk to see Vanaja.