“Vanaja” — a Telugu Art Film in New York


After running at myriad film festivals all over the world, the Telugu film Vanaja is opening as a commercial release in New York this weekend; it will be opening more broadly around the U.S. in the next month.

Vanaja is an art film, which is to say, the director, Rajnesh Domalpalli, doesn’t come out of the “Tollywood” world of commercial Telugu cinema (he actually has an M.F.A. from Columbia, and the script for this film was submitted as his Master’s Thesis). Domalpalli’s primary actors are nearly all amateurs — people he found on the street. Carnatic music and Kuchipudi dance play important, but not overwhelming, roles in the film, and even there, it appears the actors actually spent months training in these rigorous arts.

This is a film about caste and class relations in a village setting, but Domalpalli doesn’t take the familiar route seen in many other films about village life (i.e., villagers are exploited, landowners are inherently evil). Here, the rich people, though they do not always behave sympathetically, are as human and complex as Vanaja herself. I don’t want to get too bogged down in plot, but suffice it to say that the romance in the film follows a surprising course.

Throughout, Domalpalli pays very close attention to details, including sets and staging, and the result is a film that feels very natural, yet is full of visual pleasures. The colors are rich, though not unrealistically so, and the acting is much better than one would expect from an all-amateur cast and a novice director.

I’m very curious to know how this film might be received in India, in particular in Andhra Pradesh. Unlike the films of, say, Deepa Mehta, who I’ve now come to feel makes her movies primarily for western audiences, Domalpalli’s Vanaja might actually be popular with Desi viewers. (My mother-in-law, who is visiting us from Bombay, liked it.)

One other thing, since Anna (rightly) wants us ignorant northies to learn a bit more about South Indian culture, the set of cymbals on the right side of the photo above is called a Nattuvangam. (The word of the day is Nattuvangam. Say it. Good.) Though I’m a little confused, because this site defines Nattuvangam a little differently; I gather that “Nattuvangam” refers both to the cymbals and to the act of conducting the dance by playing the cymbals?

103 thoughts on ““Vanaja” — a Telugu Art Film in New York

  1. I met Nagesh at a film festival screening in Atlanta when Hyderabad Blues was introduced. It was an interesting lil movie which showed some promise. But his problem is this – he keeps putting himself in his movies and I feel he is more awkward on camera than Shyamalan is. I will give him credit for accomplishing his dream though. I am in his age group with similar aspirations for movie making. But I have been unwilling to break free from my techie background while he did.

    That Rockford movie he did was so amateurish. I did not even bother watching his other movies after that.

    There have been some really good south indian movies in the past which were not only artistic but mainstream.

    But you know who are the worst at Indian movie watching? – NRIs. You would think our parents generation who settled here would be more open to alternative Indian movies which are not necessarily boring artfests. (speaking of boring artfests, I saw some Hindi movie on Sundance. I forget the name. It was made by that famous painter. It was unbearable torture. I couldnt finish it. It had a very uncommon sounding title. Maybe starting with a G. ) A lot of indian movies come and go like Vanaja and Indians away from India won’t do a thing to encourage their friends to watch it. It’s like they miss their India so much they need to watch the trashiest shit all the time to remind them of home.

    What India probably needs is for some alternative filmmaker to make a movie that breaks open to the mainstream like Pulp Fiction did in the early 90s. Of course, there will be annoying copycats. But at least there will be more variety in the knockoffs.

  2. (speaking of boring artfests, I saw some Hindi movie on Sundance. I forget the name. It was made by that famous painter. It was unbearable torture. I couldnt finish it. It had a very uncommon sounding title. Maybe starting with a G. )

    Gaja Gamini – M.F. Hussain’s paean to Madhuri Dixit. Haven’t seen it.

    Saw “Vanaja” a couple of weeks ago, and it missed the mark. It came across as too muddled and unfocused. The cinematography was laudable, and the actors had some good moments, but overall, it suffered from having non-professional actors, IMO. (Many of them were people off the streets.) The director was present at the end of the show and talked a bit about the actors – seems like he was really proud of them and the work they did. If he’d spent more time on the story/screenplay and hired some professional actors, it would’ve turned out better. But given that this is his first film, I am hopeful. He does have potential and I’ll definitely keep an eye out for his next one and wish him all the best.

  3. So as the ‘Desi’ viewer from Andhra Pradesh, I had to stop by and mention that I just ran into this film and loved it. It’s such a pity that it didn’t find distributors in India – it’s about time the distributors and directors stop underestimating their audience.

    For me, the best part was how authentic each one of the characters is – if you have strong ties with any small town or village in that part of Andhra Pradesh you know that’s exactly how the landlady’s maid would talk, or the landlady, fishermen or political candidates for that matter. It was great.