Has there ever been a dancer who gave a better dramatic screen performance than Mamatha Bhukya in Vanaja? The great movie dancers—Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Eleanor Powell, Cyd Charisse—delivered pleasure in droves, assuredly, but none of them could be accused of any great acting ability. And here is Bhukya, a schoolgirl chosen at the age of 15 to train in the demanding Indian art of Kuchipudi dance, who has not only mastered that choreography, but is a natural wonder—both hilarious and heartbreaking—before the camera.
Bhukya plays Vanaja, the daughter of a drunken, low-caste fisherman (Ramachandriah Marikanti) in a rural town, who dreams of being a dancer and works in the house of the local rich lady, Rama Devi (Urmila Dammannagari). There, she not only toils domestically, but learns Kuchipudi from her mistress to the point where she is performing in public. Into her life comes Rama Devi’s son, Shekhar (Karan Singh), handsome and arrogant, with political ambitions of his own. He takes advantage of Vanaja’s attraction to him and rapes her. The resultant child becomes the object of battle between her and Rama Devi, who is determined to keep this class-bounding liaison—and the baby—a secret.
Vanaja happens to be writer-director Rajnesh Domalpalli’s first movie, his thesis for Columbia University, and all I can say is, “What a student film!” He adds to the glory of contemporary Indian cinema (The Namesake, Amu), indeed all cinema, with the humanity of his vision, healthily unbridled sensuality and fluid technique. Photographed by Milton Kam, the film is gorgeous to look at, a mouth-watering feast of color from the green walls of Rama Devi’s estate with its ochre, billowing draperies to, of course, the sumptuously hued saris which even the poorest characters wear. And every character, from Vanaja and Rama Devi to the lowliest household servants, is given teemingly empathetic treatment by the director, who, unbelievably, cast them all from nonprofessionals living in the village where he shot. (He got many of his actors to audition by having them come in to answer an ad for household help.)
The drama of Vanaja’s plight is intensely compelling, but even more so are the ravishing dance sequences, which Bhukya executes with stunning grace and authority, accompanied by hypnotically driving Carnatic music, with its singular chanting. Domalpalli and Kam mercifully keep Bhukya in full figure for long takes, which helps atone for all the insane-making, choppy, MTV-style editing which has ruined film dance for the last 20 years. There’s simple magic at work here, too, in an aged dancer’s prophecy of Vanaja’s becoming a great dancer and a miraculously tame elephant which her little friend, Lacchi (charming Bhavani Renukunta), brings in as a blessing.
The changes wrought in Vanaja’s character as she matures from a blithe, sexually curious, mischievous child to reluctant mother are protean, and Bhukya is fully up to every one of them. Dammannagari has the natural imperiousness of a queen and deftly handles the inner conflicts of the always-in-control Rama Devi. Krishnamma Gundimalla is a grizzled delight as her long-time retainer, who treats Vanaja with an initial contempt that morphs into deepest sympathy. Even Singh, playing an odious character, is impossible to completely hate, as he is as much an inevitable—if too entitled—product of his caste as Vanaja is. Marikanti truly lives his part as Vanaja’s father, and Krishna Garlapati and adorable little Prabhu Garlapati both appeal, as the boys whom Vanaja uses and abuses.