A feudal set-up, an alcoholic father, a girl who gives up school to work in the zamindar’s house, a rape and teenage pregnancy ought to be a recipe for the kind of film that makes you reach for the Prozac. It speaks volumes for Rajnesh Domalpalli’s skill that Vanaja leaves you instead with a sense of exhilaration. This is almost entirely because of a well-chosen cast and some exquisite acting.
Vanaja wants to be a dancer and gladly works for her landlady, who used to be a kuchupudi dancer in her time. Mischievous and charming at the beginning, Vanaja makes the transition into an unsought adulthood with weariness and a determination that is heartbreaking.
The dance sequences in the film work as commentary on the larger narrative, as well as tillana, pure dance and joy in the body and its abilities. In one sequence, Vanaja becomes mahishasuramardini. Knowing that any justice she could ever seek for herself or her illegitimate child will only be within the confines of the dance, she pours all her anger and despair into every movement she makes.
Domalpalli is also refreshingly unsentimental about teenage sexuality. In one hilarious scene, a young boy who works with Vanaja discovers her with the postman, and yells at them to “do something dirty, otherwise I’ll tell!”
Vanaja won the Best Feature Debut Award at Berlin this year.