February 29 & March 2, 2008

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111 minutes

view trailer

Vanaja (2006)

February 29, 2008 at 7:00 and 10:00 pm in 26-100
March 2, 2008 at 7:00 pm in 26-100

Set in rural South India, a place where social barriers are built stronger than fort walls, 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 sooth-sayer 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) – 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 – a fact that doesn’t go unnoticed - and which eventually secures her the landlady’s mentorship – 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 – 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. []

Telugu, with English subtitles.

Sponsored by MISTI (MIT India).

Vanaja, a beautiful and heart-touching film from India, represents a miracle of casting. Every role, including the challenging central role of a low-caste 14-year-old girl, is cast perfectly and played flawlessly.
      -- Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times. Read this review.

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