MUMBAI: Telugu film Vanaja has picked up four awards, at the Newport Beach Film Festival, Worldfest-Houston International Film Festival, the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles, and the RiverRun International Film Festival in North Carolina, in recent weeks.
Directed by Rajnesh Domalpalli, the coming-of-age drama about a teenage girl in rural South India, has so far won 13 awards after playing at over 50 film festivals around the world, and is slated for a late summer release in select cities across the United States.
Vanaja has already won other honours including Best Feature Debut at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival, Best Feature at the Memphis International Film Festival, Best Actress and Best International Film at the Sacramento International Film Festival, Best Narrative Feature at the IAAC Film Festival, and the Special International Jury Prize at the Cairo International Children’s Film Festival.
Set in rural south India, a place where social barriers are still strong, Vanaja explores the chasm that divides classes as a young girl struggles to come of age. Vanaja (Mamatha Bhukya) is the 14 year-old daughter of a poor, low caste fisherman, struggling with dwindling catches and mounting debt. When a soothsayer predicts that she will be a great dancer one day, she goes to work in the house of the local landlady, Rama Devi (Urmila Dammannagari), in hopes of learning Kuchipudi dance while earning a keep.
She is hired as a farmhand, and her vivacious ways and spunk soon catch the landlady’s eye: when she is entrusted with tending the chicken, she’s caught, instead, chasing them into a general pandemonium, and lying unabashedly to conceal her pranks. To keep her out of trouble, Rama Devi promotes her to a kitchen underhand, where she comes up against the old, crusty and extremely loyal Radhamma (Krishnamma Gundimalla) Ã¢â‚¬â€œ Rama Devi’s cook.
It isn’t long before Vanaja gets herself invited to play a game of ashta chamma against Rama Devi. Seeing that losing isn’t the mistress’s forte, Vanaja deliberately gives up her game Ã¢â‚¬â€œ a fact that doesn’t go unnoticed – and which eventually secures her the landlady’s mentorship Ã¢â‚¬â€œ first in music, and then in dance. Vanaja excels at the art, and seems to be on a steadily ascending path when Shekhar (Karan Singh), Rama Devi’s 23 year old son Ã¢â‚¬â€œ handsome, muscular and rather insecure, returns from the US to run for local political elections.
Sexual chemistry is ignited between Shekhar and Vanaja (still a minor at 15), as flirtation and innuendo bloom. But, the situation suddenly turns ugly when Vanaja’s superior intellect pits her against Shekhar in a public incident which ultimately humiliates him in front of his mother. Matters escalate, spiraling downwards and she is pitched into a tale of class, family and animus from which there is only one escape.