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Movie review

Out of India, a servant's forbidden love

In 'Vanaja,' the title character lives to dance. In "Vanaja," the title character lives to dance. (Alan M. Smith/Emerging Pictures)

It's not easy to make a very sad movie that doesn't make you want to jump out a window when it's over. "Vanaja" pulls this off. It illustrates the unhappiness the Indian caste system can wreak, but you can imagine Judy Garland or Deanna Durbin in the title part - if Hollywood permitted movies about sexually curious 15-year-old servants. But Vanaja (Mamatha Bhukya) lives to dance. She also has to make a living to support herself and her alcoholic father (Ramachandriah Marikanti). So she goes to work for Rama Devi (Urmila Dammannagari), the powerful landlady of the film's rural South India town.

The job is mundane: Tend the chickens, peel onions, annoy no one. But Vanaja is an exuberant, independent girl with an eye on the future. She relies on Rama Devi to improve her dancing and she does. But men keep getting in the way. Vanaja flirts with and fends off a cute, if aggressive, suitor (Krishna Garlapati). For a minute, he seems a lot less appealing than Rama Devi's strapping 23-year-old son, Shekar (Karan Singh), who's just returned from the States. He wants to run for local office. But first he needs a shower, which Vanaja prepares for him, then watches him take. He doesn't mind. And the story of forbidden love you can see coming is derailed by human nature, insecurity, and propriety.

The film is well enough made to warrant witnessing for yourself what happens between these two. But the palm reader who early in the picture predicts fame and riches for Vanaja must have been looking at the wrong hand. A star is aborted. The first-time writer and director Rajnesh Domalpalli doesn't oppress us with bad news. He seems to trust our sentience. We know his heroine's life is hard. There's no need for a hammer. It's interesting both how the tides of fortune ebb and flow in this movie and how shrewd the characters are in their actions. Every one is thinking about what to do next, and the consequences are rarely fair. Life interrupts the dance.

Domalpalli has probably made his story more episodic than it needs to be. He captures everyday rhythms with some staginess - though he is going for melodrama not neo-realism, after all. Smartly, he uses the wisdom in the old actors and the exuberance of the young ones to deepen and lighten up his movie, respectively. It has personality. And personality, ultimately is what dams off the waves of tragedy from crashing over this movie. If Domalpalli keeps this up, he might become something new for movies - a discreet combination of Satyajit Ray and Douglas Sirk.

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Vanaja

Written and directed by: Rajnesh Domalpalli

Starring: Mamatha Bhukya, Ramachandriah Marikanti, and Urmila Dammannagari

At: Kendall Square, Cambridge

Running time: 111 minutes.

Unrated

In Telugu, with subtitles

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