Growing up is hard in the most progressive of societies. But growing up in a rigid caste system like India's, especially if you're stuck in one of the lower castes, seems a tragedy waiting to happen.
Vanaja, Sunday's closing-night offering at the second annual Baltimore Women's Film Festival, is a wondrous piece of filmmaking and a sensitive, engaging movie from a first-time filmmaker working on a shoestring budget with a cast of nonactors. But more than that, it's the rare film that seeks no extremes but rather finds both dark and light in the most dire of circumstances. While unafraid of being critical, it nevertheless refuses to demonize anyone, acknowledging the better angles of human nature even while admitting they don't always show through.
Vanaja (a radiant Mamatha Bhukya), 14, is spirited, headstrong and reckless - par for the course for those on the cusp of adolescence. But as the daughter of a lowly fisherman, Vanaja has to constantly watch herself and be on guard. In a social system where advancement beyond one's class is rarely seen, her future looks bleak. Unless she's careful, it's only going to get bleaker.
Still, she's a pistol, and for a while, it seems her boldness will pay off. First, she persuades her father to approach their higher-caste landlady, Rama Devi (Urmila Dammannagari), to ask that she be given a job. Then, she charms Rama Devi with her spunk and guile, and the old woman develops a genuine affection for Vanaja. Finally, she persaudes Rama Devi to teach her how to dance.
But soon Vanaja grows a little too bold, flirting with one of the local boys and taking for granted Rama Devi's affection. Things really turn dire when Rama Devi's son, Shekhar (Karam Singh), returns from studying in the U.S. and develops a decidedly unwholesome interest in the girl. When he acts on those impulses, both Vanaja and Rama Devi are devastated - the girl because she's being asked to grow up faster than she should, the older woman because she's torn between affection and family loyalty.
Bhukya, who was in eighth grade and had never acted when she was chosen for the role, is a find of the first order. Her expressive face, dominated by piercing dark eyes, makes Vanaja more than just a plucky heroine. She's someone you want to cheer for and protect. Dammannagari's conflicted Rama Devi expertly walks the tightrope between heroine and villain, and compassion and vanity. There are plenty of people to root for in Vanaja and few to wholeheartedly root against.
The movie, part of writer-director Rajnesh Domalpalli's master's thesis at Columbia University, never shoves the viewer into anything. Instead, it gently pushes at its audience's sensibilities, offering what for many will seem like an outrageous situation but shading it with emotions both complex and utterly realistic. It is served especially well by its nonprofessional cast members, who eschew actors' tricks in favor of simply feeling their parts. Vanaja seems filled with people who are simply being, and that makes all the difference in this charming and harrowing tale.
if you go
The second annual Baltimore Women's Film Festival runs through Sunday at Landmark Theatres Harbor East, 645 President St. For more information, go to bwfilmfestival.com.
(Emerging Pictures) Starring Mamatha Bhukya, Urmila Dammannagari. Written and directed by Rajnesh Domalpalli. Unrated. Time 111 minutes.