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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Vanaja
Vanaja
Other // Unrated // March 24, 2008
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Jeffrey Kauffman | posted May 12, 2008 | E-mail the Author
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C O N T E N T
V I D E O
A U D I O
E X T R A S
R E P L A Y
A D V I C E
Highly Recommended
E - M A I L
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P R I N T
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The Movie:
If you are prone to think of Indian film as Bollywood and nothing but Bollywood, you will either be shocked or amazed, probably both, by Rajnesh Domalpalli's amazing first full-length feature Vanaja. Filmed to fulfill Domalpalli's Master's Thesis requirements at Columbia, the film is indeed masterful, though those used to seeing exuberant singing and dancing in surreal settings are likely going to be disturbed, and rightly so, by this film's depiction of a lower caste girl's coming of age, replete as it with rape, an illegitimate child, and various other trials and tribulations.

Vanaja follows the story of its title heroine, a winsome young girl portrayed in an amazing performance by newcomer Mamatha Bukhya (in fact virtually all of the film's cast are nonprofessionals doing their first film work here). Vanaja has dreams of being a dancer, something that is out of reach for a girl of her station, but, as depicted by Bukhya, there's an indomitable spirit welling up beneath her circumstances that will not be denied. What seems to be a feelgood film showing her eventual triumph after she is taken in by her village's local "Landlady," a woman of high caste and some means who also happens to be a dance expert, soon turns ugly when the Landlady's lecherous son arrives from America and soon makes sexual sport of Vanaja. The rest of the film depicts the agony of Vanaja's choices, which are severely limited. Though star Bukhya maintains in an extra interview that Vanaja ultimately does triumph by the film's end, it's really a pyrrhic victory, if it can be seen as a victory at all.

This film is a wonder to behold and experience, if you are not overwhelmed by its often depressing emotional content. The sights and sounds of the "real" India (as opposed to the Bollywood version) are as palpable as I've ever experienced in film. From the lovely colors of the buildings and the saris the women wear, to the exotic settings like Vanaja moving through gorgeous lily pads, to the absolutely riveting incorporation of gorgeous ethnic musics and dance, Vanaja is the kind of visceral experience of a foreign culture that enlightens as well as entertains. Western eyes and ears will be delighted by the exotic atmosphere Vanaja offers, but western hearts will most likely be made very heavy by the at times shocking cultural mores that have a stranglehold on everyone.

The performances are uniformly affecting in this film acted by supposed "amateurs." Bukhya especially does not shy away from Vanaja's darker elements--her ambition is frequently to her detriment and her "playfulness" goes to such extremes as to make her less than perfectly likable at times. Director Domalpalli has a beautiful eye for detail and a master's touch at framing his scenes absolutely perfectly. I'm sure this will not be the last time we'll hear from him and he is to be heartily congratulated on a uniquely affecting first feature film.

The DVD

Video:
The enhanced 1.85:1 image (from a hi-def source element) is absolutely gorgeous. A lot of the film appears to have been made in natural lighting situations, so some of the interior shots can be a bit on the dark side, but colors (and boy are there colors in this piece!) and saturation are excellent. My particular DVD exhibited a strange anomaly that I initially thought might mean it had been converted from PAL--throughout the film, especially in scenes with a lot of motion, there was jerky movement, almost as if a few frames were missing. However in contacting director Domalpalli, he informed me this was not the case, so perhaps this was a badly authored check disc. I'd be interested to hear from others who pick up the retail version.

Sound:
The stereo Hindi soundtrack (with English subtitles) is one of the most enjoyable I've heard in years, with superb separation and fidelity highlighting a literal world of exotic sounds, from birds to unusual instruments.

Extras:
Several nice extras augment this disc, including interviews with Domalpalli and Bukhya, complete unedited dance sequences, and several short films Domalpalli made as a student.

Final Thoughts:
Non-Indian filmmakers like Jean Renoir and even David Lean have tackled, with various degrees of success, to depict the "real" India. Vanaja gives it to the viewer straight, from an insider's perspective. The view is often unsettling, but it is not to be missed. Highly, highly recommended.

____________________________________________
"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet

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