In conversation with రజనేష దోమలపల్లి
Rajnesh Domalpalli, a computer engineer in the US turned film maker making news with his first feature film వనజ (Vanaja), a narrative on the social structure in India. The Telugu film, set in the 1950-60s has bagged several awards including the 'Best Debut Feature' at the 2007 Berlin International Film Festival and the 'Gollapudi Srinivas Memorial Award' 2007. Interesting is the fact that most of the cast of the film has been drawn from the lower and middle class of society and have never faced a camera. Rajnesh spoke to Mythily Ramachandran on his experiences in making his debut film 'Vanaja.'
You mentioned that your maiden film, 'Vanaja' is a narrative on the social structure set in the 1950's- 60's, yet relevant today. Can you please explain?
The film presents the barriers within our rural society. Although there has been some change in attitudes in our rural communities, many issues of then are still relevant now.
In one of the scenes involving a temple, I had asked extras to sit on the steps, arranging them into groups to provide some background activity. To our surprise there was a violent reaction from bystanders, since they belonged to the lower class.
The film has a cast with no background in acting and come from the low/middle class background. Was it not difficult training them?
Yes, most of them belong to Hyderabad's middle and lower-classes. I love working with non-professionals, because of their eagerness to learn. Besides, they carry with them life's experiences. Some were from the labor camps and they came to earn more. But once they began to grapple with the intricacies of acting, they realized that self-expression was a significant opportunity too.
As far as training them was concerned, I had studied under a brilliant instructor at Columbia University, Prof. Lenore DeKoven, whose teachings I was able to draw upon while training my actors. When I first found Mamatha Bhukya (Vanaja) in her school, I wasn't keen on selecting her. I found her hair too short. But I now realize how lucky I am.. She progressed from the basics to what you see on screen today.
And training Mamatha in Kuchipudi?
Srinivas Devarakonda, a disciple of Dr. Vempatti Chinna Satyam started her on basic adavus in March 2004 progressing to jatis and finally to the five items we had choreographed for the film. Shooting commenced in January 2005 and what you see on screen is what Mamatha learnt in ten months.
Which member of the cast do you think rose beyond your expectations?
Every single one. How could I possibly single out anyone?
Now that the film is ready for release, are they back to their former livelihood?
Unfortunately everyone has returned to their old profession. Perhaps some day, alternative films will have a market and more filmmakers will feel comfortable taking in non-professionals. And then, those who have worked in 'Vanaja' will find a role.
How long did it take to work on the film?
I started writing the story at the end of the first semester at Columbia. It was almost done by the end of the fourth..
Any overwhelming moment you wish to share?
We were shooting this scene in which a soothsayer tells Vanaja that she will become a great dancer one day. We were having a difficult time that night. It was late and everyone was exhausted. That night, I suddenly woke up with a start. I realized that we had missed shooting an essential line of the scene. It was, "If I tell you that only Goddess Parvati will match you in dance, what you will give me?" We re-shot the scene the next day, feeling grateful to the powers that be.
What prompted you to quit your job in the Silicon Valley in California?
While doing my engineering at IIT, I used to write short stories. I also learnt Carnatic music around the same time. Photography came a bit later when I could afford a good camera in the US. Add acting to this and you have most of the essentials of filmmaking.
I enjoyed my work no doubt, but it was only when I did a few courses in creative writing at a local community college in California, I realized that I had to make the switch. I set my heart on Columbia University because of its stylistic emphasis on the screenplay. Since I lacked a film background, I knew I was against heavy odds. So I did courses in acting, art history, voice control, elements of design, photography and writing before applying to Columbia University in 2001. I graduated with 'Vanaja' in 2006.
One of your stories, 'Dowry' has been broadcast by BBC. Any other story that has won recognition?
Yes, 'Dowry' was broadcast by BBC's World Service in Sept 1984 and Aug 1989. Another story, 'Akka' was a finalist in BBC's International Short Story Competition 2001.
What about your other interest, Carnatic music?
I learnt to play the veena at IIT Mumbai from Radha Srisailam, my professor's wife. In the US, I studied vocal from Jayashree Varadarajan in California. M.S. Subbulakshmi is my favorite.
How supportive has your family been?
Both my parents are very supportive, although my father was very concerned in the beginning about my switch from computer engineering. My mother is the pillar I lean on.
The film has received quite a many awards. Tell us about it.
The major award was the 'Best Debut Feature' at the 2007 Berlin international film festival. The others include, 'Best Narrative Feature' at the 2006 IAAC, New York; 'Special International Jury Prize' at the 2007 Cairo Children's film festival; Gollapudi Srinivas Memorial Award 2007; 'Faculty Select Screenplay' at Columbia University; and a 'special mention', at the 2006 Hampton's international film festival.
Who is your favorite actor?
I don't have a favorite actor. But I admire Satyajit Ray for his lyrical style and socially relevant subjects as in 'Pather Panchali.' I also admire John Cassavetes' and his films especially, 'Woman under the Influence.' I love Zhang Yimou for his visual mastery. I enjoyed Emir Kusturica's 'Underground.'
What relaxes you after work?
The company of friends.