Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 28, 2008


Filed under: india — louisproyect @ 6:03 pm

About a year ago I reviewed “Amu“, a very fine film by an Indian-American graduate of Columbia University. So when I received a press release on “Vanaja”, another film with such a pedigree, I was anxious to see it. I can now report that “Vanaja”, produced and directed by Rajnesh Domalpalli for his MFA, is a stunning achievement. As a study of caste oppression in India, it reflects the same kind of political commitment as “Amu”, which focused on the anti-Sikh pogrom of 1984. But both films are not just political statements. They are also superb stories with very fine performances by nonprofessionals. Although I am no expert on student films, it strikes me that “Vanaja” might be the most accomplished example of such work ever, as suggested by its award as best first film by the Berlin Film Festival last year.

Vanaja is the 14 year old daughter of a lower-caste fisherman who is forced by economic circumstances to go to work as the servant of a local landowner named Rama Devi, an elderly woman who is an expert in Kuchipudi dance. Since Vanaja has a passion for the Kuchipudi art-form, she implores the mistress to train her. The humiliation and pain are almost as great as that suffered by Uma Thurman in her training by an elderly martial arts master in “Kill Bill 2”.

Vanaja has trouble kowtowing to her mistress, however. Time after time, she refuses to accept her lower-caste status especially since she is confident in her obvious talent for Kuchipudi. Adults from her caste are much more deferential to Rama Devi, including her father who practically bows and scrapes in her presence. Such scenes will remind you painfully of “Gone with the Wind”.

Not long after Vanaja has established herself at Devi’s mansion, she finds herself in an awkward position vis-à-vis the landlady’s college-aged son Shekhar, who has just returned from the U.S. She resents his upper-caste hauteur but finds herself drawn to him sexually. Eventually, Shekhar rapes Vanaja who becomes pregnant. The admixture of mutual sexual attraction and repulsion between two people in the same intimate surroundings but alienated by class origins goes to the very heart of “traditional” social relationships involving bondage. Vanaja is basically Sally Hemings to Shekhar’s Thomas Jefferson.

Vanaja agrees to cede her baby son to Rama Devi, who will raise it as her own. The concluding scenes of the film involve the young woman’s desperate attempts to regain what is her own. In her most forlorn moments, she is redeemed by the feeling of power that Kuchipudi performances afford her.

Rajnesh Domalpalli had twin motivations in making this film. He wanted to look at the realities of caste oppression in his Telugu-speaking state of Andhra Pradesh in South India. (The film was shot in his home town He also wanted to preserve for posterity the ancient art of Kuchipudi that is now dying off. Indeed, two noted performers who are seen at the beginning of the film have since passed away. In an interview that appears with other very interesting material on the DVD, Domalpalli explains that in small villages Kuchipudi performances were avidly attended by the entire population. Now, with the advent of television, that is no longer the case. “Modernization” in India has been a mixed blessing, needless to say.

The actors in “Vanaja” are nonprofessionals who are nearly as humble in their origin as the characters they play. For example, Vanaja’s father Somayya is played by Ramachandriah Marikanti. The film’s official website describes him as follows:

Chandraiah, as he is called, was born on the 16th of April 1945, in the village of Kamalapuram in Andhra to Marikanti Veera Swamy & Tirupamma. He was the 3rd amongst 7 children. He got married at 25 to Yenkamma, with whom he had 4 children. At an early age, he took up farming instead of going to school, but over the years lost his possessions due to mounting debt. He then began rearing ducks and trading in eggs and local ox. Unable to make ends meet, he moved family to Hyderabad, the capital, in 2001 and worked as a municipal sweeper until 2004. Following that, he eventually found work as a security guard.

His favorite scene is the one in which he acts drunk, howling to Vanaja that his boat has been taken away. He confesses that he enjoyed getting slightly drunk on the sly to make his acting more natural.

Of course, the key member of the cast is the remarkable Mamatha Bhukya, who taught herself acting and Kuchipudi all in one year during the preproduction phase of filming. She comes from an Indian gypsy family; her father is a forest ranger and her mother a housewife. When she went to Berlin for the film festival, it was the first time she ever flew on a plane.

In some ways, the most interesting story is the director’s, whose background seems totally at odds with the arts. As the film website, states: “After completing his B. Tech in EE from the IIT Mumbai in 1984 and an MS from SUNY, SB in 1986 he worked as a Computer Engineer in California’s Silicon Valley before deciding to take up Film at Columbia University in New York and graduating with an MFA in 2006.”

This renaissance man would seem to bridge C.P. Snow’s “two cultures” just as adeptly as fellow Columbia University graduate Bedabrata Pain who was the executive producer of his wife’s “Amu”: “A NASA scientist by profession Dr. Bedabrata Pain is one of the inventors of the active pixel sensor technology that produced the world’s smallest camera in 1995, and led to the digital imaging revolution in the world. This was the invention that provided the seed funding for Amu. In 1997 he was inducted to the US Space Technology Hall of Fame.” (From “Amu” website.)

“Vanaja” has just been released on DVD and should be available from Netflix before long. In the meantime, it is available from Emerging Pictures, a new theatrical distribution company for independent, international and documentary films.

Vanaja trailer

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