Vanaja is a simple and sometimes lovely Telugu film, shot on a shoestring budget by a debutant director. Though rough around the edges, it has a few moments of sparkle that make it well worth seeing.
In a fishing village in Andhra Pradesh, fifteen-year-old Vanaja (Mamatha Bhukya) goes to school, giggles with her friends, and looks after her father. After her father's hard luck and drunkenness leaves him deeply in debt, Vanaja takes work in the household of the local landowner, Rama Devi (Urmila Dammannagari). Rama Devi was, in her youth, the region's premier performer of traditional Kuchipudi dance, and Vanaja boldly and stubbornly prevails upon Rama Devi to teach her. She proves reasonably talented, and she, Rama Devi, and Rama Devi's other servant, the elderly Radhamma (Krishnamma Gundimalla) fall into a happy routine for a while. The balance is upset with the return from America of Rama Devi's strapping son Shekhar (Karan Singh), who, Rama Devi plans, will stand in a local election. Shekhar is attracted to Vanaja, and Vanaja is fascinated by him. But when a chain of events makes Shekhar resentful and suspicious of Vanaja, he takes decisive action that irreparably changes her life.
Vanaja's director, Rajnesh Domalpalli, cast Andhra Pradesh villagers rather than professional actors in his film. The effect is both the film's charm and its weakness. The characters' raw authenticity and unpracticed emotions are engaging. At the same time, though, the young Mamatha Bhukya is not quite up to the task of portraying Vanaja's shifting and confused motives, with the result that even her boldest actions sometimes feel detached or unmotivated. Still, the film is often charming, and its best moments are driven by Urmila Dammannagari's performance as Rama Devi - she, though as amateur an actor as Mamatha Bhukya, is a mature woman, and seems able to draw on her lifetime of experience to make Rama Devi salty, sweet, stern, and soft, all in a delicate balance.
Indeed, the relationship between Rama Devi and Vanaja is the most compelling facet of the film. It operates on many levels: master-servant, guru-pupil, and even mother-daughter - Vanaja's mother, we learn, died when she was very young, and Rama Devi appears to have no daughter of her own. Sparks fly most when these disparate levels intersect, and Rama Devi is challenged by the clash of the proprieties of a high-caste landowner and the tenderness she feels for the girl. The growth of the relationship between Vanaja and Radhamma, the elder servant in Rama Devi's household, also traverses a touching arc. The result is that while Vanaja is in some ways a film about the gulf that separates high and low castes, it is even more than that a film about how the bonds between women, and the timeless universality of women's experiences, transcend those societal divides.
The other delight of Vanaja is Vanaja's dancing. As her lessons begin she is awkward and unsteady on her feet; she develops in grace and expressiveness as the film progresses, and her performances are a lovely counterpoint to the bleaker turns taken by the storyline. Vanaja tries on many different roles as she feels her way through her traumatic adolescence - child, woman, seductress, mother - but the devotional roles she plays in traditional dance seem a respite for her from the painful complexity of her daily life.