A word of praise here about Vanaja, probably the most successful Indian film to come out in quite a while. Never heard of it? Well, very few folks in India have either. That's because I'm defining success by film festival acceptance. Toronto, Berlin, Vancouver, Cairo ... the list goes on. I counted 85 on the website alone. And Vanaja has racked up the awards too including "Best Debut Feature" for director Rajnesh Domalpalli at Berlin. However, coverage of it in the Indian papers have been limited. Why is that?

We saw Vanaja earlier this year at the San Francisco International Film Festival and were blown away. However, I can understand the recalcitrance of journalists in hyping a film of this type. It's a complex effort that defies categorization and its frank exploration of teenage needs makes it even less of an easy sell, particularly in India. It is also absolutely astounding coming from a first time director. As a wanna-be myself, I am suitably envious. At first, the story seems to be about Vanaja, a lower caste girl in rural South India, who somehow persuades the local landlady to give her dancing lessons. "Aha!," I remember thinking, ""Flashdance" in Telugu!" Hardly. Quickly, the plot changes when landlady's son comes back home and subsequently takes advantage of Vanaja's youth and inexperience. "Aha!," I remember thinking again, ""The Accused" in Telugu!" Wrong again. Regardless, with its constantly shifting plotlines and lovely visuals, Vanaja is a slow burn film that stays with you long after the last reel has unspooled.

The story behind the film is interesting as well. Rajnesh was an Engineer in the Valley prior to quitting and leaving for film school in Columbia U. Vanaja is his thesis film cast exclusively with non-actors. In the QA following the SF screening, I remember Rajnesh describing the setting up of a lengthy workshop at his village house in India dedicated to training his cast. That reminded me of a similar process used by Mira Nair in Salaam Bombay. The dedication showed by the filmmaker in setting up his film is also reflected in his tireless promotion of it (as evidenced by the number of festival screenings!). It is playing in select US cities and the hard work is starting to pay off with critics like Roger Ebert lavishing praise. Whatever happens next, Mr. Domalpalli has already made room for himself as a filmmaker to watch.

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- September 16, 2007 9:53 AM // Film