A frustratingly not-terrible action thriller.
'Vanaja," a beautiful and heart-touching film from India, represents a miracle of casting. Every role, including the challenging central role of a low-caste 14-year-old girl, is cast perfectly and played flawlessly, so that it is a continuing pleasure to see these faces on the screen. Then we learn their stories. The actors, naturally and effortlessly true, are all nonprofessionals who were cast for their looks and presence, and then trained in an acting workshop set up by the director, Rajnesh Domalpalli. He recalls that his luminous star, Mamatha Bhukya, an eighth-grader, was untrained, and had to learn to act and perform classical Indian dances during a year of lessons set up in his family's basement!
But this movie is not wonderful because of where the actors started. It is wonderful because of where they arrived, and who they became. Bhukya is a natural star, her eyes and smile illuminating a face of freshness and delight. And the other characters are equally persuasive, especially Urmila Dammannagari, as the district landlady, who has to negotiate a way between her affection for the girl and her love for her son.
But why are you reading this far? An Indian film? Starring Mamatha Bhukya and Urmila Dammannagari? Lesser readers would already have tuned out, but you are curious. And so I can promise you that here is a very special film. It was made by the director as part of his master's thesis in the film department at Columbia University, shot over a period of years on a $20,000 budget, and all I can say is $20,000 buys a lot in India, including a great-looking, extraordinary film.
Let me tell you a little of the story. In a rural district of South India, a 14-year-old girl named Vanaja (Bhukya) lives with her shambling, alcoholic father. Life is bearable because she makes her own way, and when we first see her, she's in the front row of a dance performance with her best friend, Lacchi, where they're giggling like bobby-soxers (a word that will mystify some of my Indian readers, but fair's fair). What beautiful girls they are, and I mean that not in a carnal but a spiritual sense. The sun shines from their skin.