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50th San Francisco International Film Festival at PFA

Saturday, April 28, 2007
5:30 p.m. Vanaja
Rajnesh Domalpalli (India/U.S., 2006)

Vanaja is only fourteen and ready for anything, a dangerous combination for the daughter of a low-caste fisherman buried in debt. When a soothsayer predicts that she will become a great dancer, and her father can no longer pay for school, Vanaja steers her way into the household of Rama Devi, the local landlady and a virtuoso of Kuchipudi, a narrative dance practiced by high-caste Brahmins. Hired as a farmhand, the girl reminds Rama Devi of her own youthful spirit, and the landlady promotes her to the kitchen and teaches her the steps. Vanaja is evincing talent as a dancer when the landlady's son, Shekhar, returns from the United States to run in local elections. Her saucy flirtation with the young master turns ugly, leaving Vanaja both pregnant and the object of Rama Devi's fury. This modern coming-of-age tale is much more than the story of one girl's hardships; director Rajnesh Domalpalli fearlessly explores the boundaries of social class, sexuality, gender, and family. Shot in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, every scene is saturated with local color and sound. Authenticity is heightened by the cast of nonactors, most of them drawn from local schools, labor camps, and shantytowns. In her mastery of both Telugu dialogue and the complex grace of Kuchipudi dance, Mamatha Bhukya shines in the title role. However badly wronged, her Vanaja stands proud.

—Kathleen Denny

• Written by Domalpalli. Photographed by Milton Kam. With Mamatha Bhukya, Urmila Dammannagari, Marikanti Ramachandriah, Krishnamma Gundimalla. (111 mins)