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Victoria Film Festival ’08 Interview – Vanaja director Rajnesh Domalpalli

Vanaja - Screening at Victoria Film Festival
by Jason Whyte

“Vanaja was shot in Rural South India, early in 2005 with a cast of Non-Professionals and First Timers. The film tells the story of a young 14 year old Fisherman’s Daughter, who’s told by a Sooth Sayer that she’ll be a great dancer one day. In hopes of learning Kuchipudi while earning a keep, she goes to the house of the local Landlady, but what starts out as innocent sexual chemistry between her and the Landlady’s son, soon turns ugly, pitching her into a battle of gender, caste and animus from there is only one escape.” Director Rajnesh Domalpalli on “Vanaja” which screens tonight at the Victoria Film Festival.

So you’re in a conversation with someone you haven’t met before at the Victoria fest and they ask if you have a film in the festival. What do you tell them to get them to come see your film? What’s your hook?

The film has been selected into over 100 film festivals in 46 countries, and has won 23 Awards and 2 Nominations, including the Best First Feature at the 2007 Berlin Film Festival. The New York Times called it “Absolutely Timeless”, Newsweek called it an “Auspicious Debut”, San Francisco Chronicle called it “Sublime Direction”, and the LA Times called it an “Arresting Story”. Roger Ebert gave it 4 Stars and placed it in the Top Five Foreign Films of 2007. Are you tempted?

Tell me a little bit about yourself and your background, and what led you to wanting to make films.

I grew up in small town Andhra, in S. India, where my father worked as a Dam Construction Engineer. As a child I always loved two things – music and the visual medium. Later, in college, when I was studying at the IIT Mumbai, I started writing Short Stories. Film, in a sense, really is a combination of these three plus Acting. So, although I initially worked as an Engineer in the Silicon Valley I eventually decided to take up Film in 2001. Vanaja is my Master’s Thesis at Columbia University Film School.

Tell me about how this production came together and how the film was made.

At the end of the first Semester at Columbia, we had to start by writing a Synopsis of what would eventually become the Thesis. We had to follow it up with Character Study, Internal and External Conflict, Dramatic Circumstance and Setting. Only then were we allowed to move on to a Beat Sheet and finally the Screenplay.

Since the story has a rural bias, I decided to hire non-professionals, many from the middle and “lower classes” of Andhra Society. We trained for almost a year in the basement of our house in Hyderabad. The Lead, Mamatha Bhukya had to learn both Kuchipudi dance and Acting within this period, and several remote locations had to be prepped for the shoot. Moving the Indian Bureaucracy isn’t easy, and everything required either a permission or a political connection. Lacking the latter, we had no choice but to put our shoulder to the wheel and just keep ploughing through.

Please tell me about the technical side of the film; your relation to the film’s cinematographer, what the film was shot on and why it was decided to be photographed this way.

I was lucky to have a wonderful Cinematographer in Milton Kam. We poured through several photo-essays from our favourite photographer – Raghubir Singh, who is famous for travel photography in India. We didn’t have the budget for 35mm, so we shot on Super 16, and only when a rough cut was received favourably by my professors at School, did we continue to finish with a DI – which gave us immense control over the final look and feel of the film.

Out of the entire production, what was the most difficult aspect of making this film? Also, what was the most pleasurable moment?

Finding Actors. We weren’t allowed to place Ads in the Newspapers, so we had to do a lot of manual Scouting at Labour camps, Hutments, Gyms and Schools. Finding the right talent – with a sense of commitment, intelligence, and a naturally expressive manner wasn’t easy. There are people in the film (the old maid - Radhamma, and Vanaja’s father – Somayya) who don’t read and write, and I say this with pride for them, and as an enormous compliment to their perseverance that they were able to perform so brilliantly.

Rather than pleasurable, the most poignant moment for me was when, on the day that we were to shoot a Scene where Radhamma, consoles Vanaja after the rape, someone told me that the actress who plays Radhamma (Krishnamma Gundimalla) had brought Chilli-Paste to rub in her eyes. She was afraid that if she wasn’t able to cry, she would disappoint me. Needless to say, although that was the longest Shooting Day we had, I told her not to touch the paste, promising her that her performance would stand the test of time. You be the judge.

Who would you say your biggest inspirations are in the film world (directors, actors, cinematographers, etc)? Did you have any direct inspirations from filmmakers for this film in particular?

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."

How has the film been received at other festivals or screenings? Do you have any interesting stories about how this film has screened before? If this is your first festival, what do you think you will expect at the film’s screenings at Victoria?

The strongest reaction to the film has been at the 2006 Toronto and 2007 Berlin Film Festivals. At the end of the Premiere at Berlin, when Mamatha and I were given a Standing Ovation, it brought tears to Mamatha’s eyes, and choked my throat. I hope that Victoria’s audiences will like it as much.

If you weren’t making movies, what other line or work do you feel you’d be in?

If I weren’t making movies, I’d love to make a living working for a Wildlife organization. In 1996, I had gone to Cameroon, to work as a Volunteer for the Word Wildlife Fund under Dr. Steve Gartlan. I’d love to do something similar.

How important do you think the critical/media response is to film these days, be it a large production, independent film or festival title?

It’s vital. It can make or break a small independent film, but equally important is the ability and resources to advertise the film well.

If your film could play in any movie theatre in the world, which one would you choose?

We’ve already opened theatrically in the US. It’s truly a shame that Vanaja hasn’t been released in India – 2 years after its making. So, if I had to choose, I’d choose a theatre in my home city of Hyderabad.

If you could offer a nickel’s worth of free advice to someone who wanted to make movies, what nuggets of wisdom would you offer?

The screenplay is probably the most important aspect of a film. Strengthening that will get a filmmaker a significant portion of the way there.

What do you love the most about film and the filmmaking business?

Film is magic. You can travel, see strange and wonderful people, peer into their lives, laugh, cry, and cringe and scream as they act out their tales. It will be a sad day if we let Arthouse theatres close.

A question that is easy for some but not for others and always gets a different response: what is your favourite movie of all time?

I would never choose. There are so many golden apples, why not treasure them all?

This film will be screening at this year’s Victoria Film Festival, which runs February 1st to 10th, 2008. For more information on this film, screening times and general information about the festival, point your browser to the VFF’s official website HERE. – Jason Whyte,

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originally posted: 02/06/08 06:58:05
last updated: 02/06/08 07:01:55
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