Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Celebrating a new cinema voice

Summary: New voices qualify as one of our most valuable cinematic possessions. I'm not talking about the kind of hip new voices one typically -- and sometimes wrongly -- associates with American independent filmmaking, but about the kind of voices that bring us into contact with those who generally are disenfranchised from contemporary cinema culture. That's why the new movie, "Vanaja," deserves to be seen and celebrated.

As portrayed by a group of non-professionals, the characters who populate "Vanaja" are ordinary people leading the kind of lives movies mostly overlook: a poor village girl who wants nothing more than to learn to the art of Kuchipudi dance, her stumbling, drunken father, the girl's best friend, the woman who becomes the girl's mentor and the mentor's handsome but callous son.

Mamatha Bhukya, a girl of irrepressible spirit and flinty character, plays the title character of director Rajnesh Domalpalli's captivating new movie. The moment we meet the playful Vanaja -- at a dance performance she's watching -- we realize that we're in vibrant company.

As is the case with many fine movies, the plot of "Vanaja" follows a simple arc: Vanaja's father pushes the girl to leave school and find work. Vanaja says she's willing, but only if she can land employment at the house of the village's upper-crust patroness, a woman known as the Landlady.

You don't need to know much about either life or Indian film to know that such dreams do not necessarily come true.

Although far from an impassioned screed, "Vanaja" manages to expose the continuing tyrannies of India's class and caste divisions, and there's one more surprising that about it. This lively, colorful movie was made as a master's of fine arts thesis at Columbia University. I haven't seen may student films like "Domalpalli's. "Vanaja" may not be seamless, but it has enough heart to make up for whatever gaps a miniscule budget couldn't fill.

If you're in Denver, "Vanaja'' can seen at The Starz FilmCenter.

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