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TORONTO ’06 DISCOVERY INTERVIEW: Rajnesh Domalpalli: “Independent film hasn’t really taken root as a

TORONTO '06 DISCOVERY INTERVIEW: Rajnesh Domalpalli: "Independent film hasn't really taken root as a

Every day through the end of the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival, indieWIRE will be publishing interviews with filmmakers in the Discovery section of the festival, which TIFF describes as “provocative feature films by new and emerging directors.”

Nineteen filmmakers were given the opportunity to participate in an e-mail interview, and each was sent the same questions. Director Rajnesh Domalpalli is at Toronto with his feature film, “Vanaja,” a tale of a young woman’s sexual awakening that examines caste, gender and sexuality in India.

How old are you? Where did you grow up? Where do you live now?

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, where my parents now live in retirement. 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.

Did you go to film school? Or how did you learn about filmmaking?

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 on the veena, before following it up with several years of training in the vocal tradition.

How/where did the initial idea for your film come from?

Vanaja” was written as a project submission for my first semester class at Columbia University 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 even today.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in either developing the project or making and securing distribution for the movie?

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 5 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“.

For his visual mastery, I admire Zhang Yimou.

For his layered meanings, I admire Kiarostami.

Among my recent favorites is Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth“.

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.

I also love photographing with friends. I recently switched from Film to Digital and now own a Nikon D200 that has become my staple. Although I began by photographing the wilderness along the California coast and in its mountains, I would now love to try my hand at travel photography within my home state of Andhra.

I love wildlife and spent time on a sabbatical working under Dr. Steve Gartlan, for the World Wildlife Fund for Nature in Cameroon, Africa in 1996. Given the precipitous state of the Indian environment and its wildlife, I would love to devote more time to bringing its needs to the attention of the public, either through documentaries or public awareness campaigns.

Can you tell us a bit about your next projects?

The film is about a young five-year old girl caught in the dynamics of a dysfunctional family. Finding talent will, once again, be the biggest challenge, given that I intend to cast non-professionals. But I hope to start casting by November 2006, and start principal photography by late 2007. I intend taking inspiration from Kusturica’s “Underground” and Kiarostami’s “The Wind Will Carry Us” in designing the film.

[Get the latest from the Toronto International Film Festival throughout the day in indieWIRE’s special Toronto ’06 section.]

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