An intimate look inside India’s caste system |

An intimate look inside India’s caste system

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Weekly
Mamatha Bhukya, left, stars in the Indian film "Vanaja," showing Sunday and Monday at the Wheeler Opera House in Aspen. (Emerging Pictures)

“Vanaja” takes place entirely in a village somewhere in India. The film ” the thesis project by Indian-born Columbia University film student Rajnesh Domalpalli, as well as winner of the Best Debut Film Award at the Berlin Film Festival ” is filmed virtually all indoors, or in tight courtyards. It is impossible to tell the dimensions or character of this village, other than that it is on the coast. At one point, late in the film, the camera’s eye wanders briefly, and I saw that the place was quite bigger than I had imagined, perhaps even too expansive to be termed a “village.”

Despite that sense of disorientation, “Vanaja” is remarkable in revealing what life is like for its characters; you come away with a grasp of what their rooms look like, the pace and dynamics of their lives, the conditions under which they eat and sleep, their limitations and expectations. We end up knowing precious little about the surroundings, and very much about their lives.

The middle-aged widower Somayya (Marikanti Ramachandria), for instance, is the father of the title character. An unambitious fisherman, a drunk, he is typically depicted passed out on a hard floor, often with his head up one stair from the rest of his body. His apartment, if you can call it that, seems to have no doors, no bed. But a short walk away is Rama Devi (Urmila Dammannagari), who is refereed to as “Landlady,” though what exactly she owns is never clear. (The entire town, perhaps?) But where and how Rama Devi lives ” amidst the saturated colors often associated with India, followed by a crusty, loyal servant woman through rooms devoted to dance, to prayer, to dining ” is an eloquent expression of the nation’s caste system.

Ultimately, class boundaries are the foremost topic in “Vanaja.” But writer-director Domalpalli, a former Silicon Valley computer engineer, works his way slowly and gently into the subject. The film opens with the teenage title character watching a dance performance. Despite being motherless, born into a low caste, the daughter of debt-ridden alcoholic, Vanaja (Mamatha Bhukya) is spunky and hopeful. After the dance, she finds her way to the featured performer, a minor celebrity. The woman reads Vanaja’s future, and sees good things: wealth, many children, a career as a dancer. Shortly after, Somayya brings Vanaja to Rama Devi, seeking employment for his daughter in the influential woman’s household. Somayya envisions a life of comfort and some stature, but Vanaja only wants for Rama Devi to teach her to dance.

It bears more than a hint of a feel-good story, and Vanaja’s early days in Rama Devi’s house bring her further down that uplifting path. Vanaja is willful rather than obedient, and the mistress, admiring her ambition, provides dance lessons. The arrival from America of Rama Devi’s son, Shekhar (Karan Singh), promises further opportunity for Vanaja. Shekhar is handsome and confident, being groomed for political office. He even seems to have kind intentions for Vanaja.

Their encounter, however, is no innocent flirtation. After being raped, Vanaja gives birth, and the child becomes a pawn in the game of climbing the social ladder. Vanaja’s father persuades his daughter to keep the boy, thus maintaining a connection to the upper class. Rama Devi is torn between the ambitions she has for her son, her lingering affection for Vanaja, and the newest member of her family, however much he is tainted by a lower caste. Vanaja has it toughest of all. She can leave her baby in the hands of a well-to-do family, while carrying on unencumbered to follow her dreams. Or she can keep the child, assuring a difficult future for both of them. Between Rama Devi, Vanaja and her father, Shekhar, and assorted friends and acquaintances, there is a slow-motion fluctuation over how to proceed, mirroring the uncertainty all of them feel.

The story is familiar, but the way it is presented here gives a palpable feel for the unique pressures applied by India’s outdated, destructive caste system.

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