Indian director Rajnesh Domalpalli‘s “Vanaja” centers on the 15 year-old daughter of a financially troubled fisherman. The girl goes to work in the local landlady’s house hoping to learn Kuchipudi dance and does well. But, the landlady’s son returns from the U.S. and what begins as an innocent sexual chemistry turns ugly, resulting in rape. Set in rural South India, a place where social barriers are built stronger than ancient fort walls, the film explores the chasm that divides classes as a young girl struggles to come of age. The fim screened last year in the Discovery section at the Toronto International Film Festival and also won Best Feature Debut at the 2007 Berlin International Film Festival. “Vanaja” opens Friday, August 31 at New York’s Cinema Village and September 14 in Los Angeles and Chicago with other cities to follow.
Please introduce yourself…
I was born in Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu in India. My family has since moved to Hyderabad, the capital of Andhra Pradesh in South India. I spent my childhood in small rural towns associated with dam construction projects where my father worked as a civil engineer for the government.
What were the circumstances that lead you to become a filmmaker?
After completing my B. Tech in Electrical Engineering from the IIT Mumbai in 1984 and an MS from SUNY, SB in 1986. I worked as a computer engineer in California’s Silicon Valley before deciding to take up film at Columbia University in New York and graduating with an MFA in 2006.
“Vanaja” is not only my first feature but also my thesis at Columbia. I love writing, and feel that it is the greatest challenge in making a good film. While at the IIT, I had dabbled in penning short stories during my spare time, and one of these, “The Dowry” was eventually picked up and broadcast by BBC‘s World Service in September 1984 and August 1989. College was also where I was introduced to South Indian classical music before following it up with several years of training in the vocal tradition.
How did the idea for “Vanaja” come about?
“Vanaja” was written as a project submission for my first semester class at Columbia in the fall of 2001. Inspired by a child’s scream in the film “Sophie’s Choice,” it was to be a tale about mother-child separation, but as it developed over the next three semesters, it gradually took on the elements of class distinction and conflict that continue to infuse our society and culture.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project?
The film uses a cast of non-professional, first time actors many (if not all) drawn from under-privileged sections of society. Finding the right talent was no easy task. To find the lead, we had to meet approximately 2,500 children, interview about 260 and finally select two from a shortlist of five to play the roles of Vanaja and Lacchi. Parents were also distrustful of unknowns such as us, given that for the training period of almost a year, the children would have to frequently commute to our house for lessons. To convince people to devote so much of their children’s time and energy was hard enough, but to find the right combination of intelligence, commitment and talent as well was probably the steepest cliff we had to climb.
Facing the Indian bureaucracy was probably the next major hurdle. Many government officers work limited hours a day–secure in the fact that government rules protect them from “harassment.” Much here requires a permission–or a political connection. Lacking either, the only way to move these mountains is to oil their base with money. The only thing that finally saved us was the fact that we were shooting in remote locations within our home state of Andhra.
What are your biggest creative influences?
Raghu Rai and Sebastiao Selgado for their photography. Leonardo, Michelangelo and Monet for their paintings. M.S. Subbulakshmi for her Carnatic music renditions and P. Bhanumati for her light classical works. Arundhati Roy and Dostoevsky for their writing.
What is your definition of independent film?
Independent film hasn’t really taken root as an alternative here–neither have female actors attempting to play the lead. Given an ethos where male stars have four story high garlanded billboard images dedicated to themselves, we were met with considerable skepticism from producers and distributors when we presented a case for a female lead in a “not sexually attractive age group” who would carry the film for more than 95% of the time.
What are some of your favorite films?
For his immensely lyrical style and dedication to showcasing socially relevant subject matter, I admire Satyajit Ray’s “Pather Panchali.” For their work with the actors, and in defining those moments that take us deep into the human psyche, I admire John Cassavetes’ “Woman Under the Influence” and Jacques Doillon’s “Ponette.” For his bold and brilliant style in fusing the surreal and ridiculous with the insightful, I love Emir Kusturica’s “Underground.”
What are your interests outside of film?
My first love is South Indian classical music, also called Carnatic Music. I was introduced to it at the age of 18, when I was studying engineering at the IIT Mumbia, first on the Veena–a stringed instrument that is played seated, and later, with vocal training, which I continued for several years. I still enjoy it very much, concentrating for the most part on the old masters whose depth of emotion, at least for me, is seldom emphasized now-a-days.