Indian Made Foreign Film
When రజనేష్ దోమలపల్లి (Rajnesh Domalpalli) decided to make a film set in rural Andhra Pradesh he wanted to cast real people—not Tollywood stars. But when he visited schools and hutments, rumours went around that he was after their kidneys. In the end, he got what he wanted. The cast of his first feature film, వనజ (Vanaja), includes a school girl, a bottle sealer with a sixth-grade education who had been married off at the age of nine, a municipal sweeper, an agricultural labourer, a bicycle mechanic (and also Grasim Mr India 2003).
Working with a cast of amateurs, who had never faced a camera before, was tricky enough. But Domalpalli was also making his own debut as a director. Vanaja is the Silicon Valley engineer-turned-film-maker’s Master of Fine Arts thesis film and it’s surprised everyone by winning awards at film festivals around the world and is now enjoying an art house release in the US.
Domalpalli’s excited about the film’s success (The New York Times calls it “an engrossing fairy tale’’) but also acutely aware that films like his have as much chance of really making money as Vanaja herself does of breaking through caste, class and sex barriers in a small village in Andhra Pradesh in the sixties. “The art house scene in India is more or less dead,’’ says Domalpalli sitting in a coffee shop in San Francisco. “The big theatres draw the autorickshaw-wallas and college kids who want fun. The multiplexes show Bollywood and Hollywood.’’ Vanaja has three strikes against it—it’s about village life, it has no stars, and it’s in Telugu. “That means it’s a ‘foreign’ film in India,’’ smiles the director.
In America, the language doesn’t matter. It’s just another subtitled film and Domalpalli says it’s been a very mixed audience, mostly Americans “who embrace other cultures’’. He does get a fair sprinkling of Indians too, though some of them complain that it’s 2007 and here’s yet another film about caste, class and a little girl being exploited in a village.
“My India is harsh but beautiful,’’ says Domalpalli. He admits some issues defy cultural translation. Vanaja becomes a servant in Rama Devi’s home, in the hope that in between sweeping and chopping she will learn Kuchipudi. “We too have servants at home,’’ says Domalpalli. “So I can’t point a finger and say this is bad. Our servants at home cannot sit at the table. But just because I am part of the system doesn’t mean I can’t record it.’’
But in directing Vanaja, the director had to reach across the class divide. He remembers how, while making the film in 2002, his cast was sitting around on mats, having lunch. As soon as Domalpalli sat down in their midst all conversation stopped. Eventually they put out a chair for him and set his food there. “Then all the laughter came back,” he remembers. In 2007 he went to a film studio in Andhra Pradesh. The studio boss insisted on taking him to the officer’s canteen. The next time he insisted on going to the canteen his driver went to. “We were totally comfortable but it took five years to get there,” says Domalpalli. “But I still can’t repeat it at home.”
Vanaja is suffused with Domalpalli’s nostalgia for everything that’s fading in the onslaught of urbanisation in India. The folk singers who open the film are now dead and their children have not followed the family footsteps. When he asked young children to sing a traditional Andhra folk song, they were embarrassed but they could belt out the latest Chiranjeevi hit. When Domalpalli found young Koya tribal boys they all wore shirts and pants. He asked one why he had given up his traditional clothes. “Because I want to be like you,” the boy replied.
It was probably the dream of much of his cast. Post-Vanaja their lives have changed but there has been no fairy-tale ending. The vivacious Mamatha Bhukya who plays Vanaja will probably have a career in films, says Domalpalli, though he worries she will be exploited. Somayya, who played her father, is now a gardener at Domalpalli’s mother’s friend’s house. Krishnamma who plays the old mail is sick but won’t take the medicines prescribed to her by Apollo Hospital, relying instead on tribal remedies. Krishna who plays the postman is married but stuck in the same manual labourer job. Krishna’s younger brother Prabhu lives with Domalpalli’s parents and is enrolled in an English-medium school but is having a tough time.
“So it’s mixed,” says Domalpalli with a smile. But he didn’t make a film to start a social revolution. “I just wanted to record India, the memories of my childhood, even the bad things. That’s why I named it Vanaja or water lily, it grows in the muck, but it grows into something beautiful.’’