Choreography of Class
Smitha Radhakrishnan takes a look at the language, dance, and complicated power relations explored in the Golden Bear-winning film Vanaja.
Connecting Personal Issues to the Big Picture
Smitha Radhakrishnan has been publishing her podcast Desi Dilemmas from Podbazaar since November of 2005. On August 2007, she joined Asia Pacific Arts. Desi Dilemmas weaves together narratives, opinion, and research with Indians on three continents, to place common issues facing desis in a larger social and economic context.
Questions? Comments? Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Today I offer you my take on the much-acclaimed film Vanaja, winner of the Berlin Film's Festival's Best Debut Feature Film for 2007. Vanaja is screening around the country now, and opinions abound. So, here's my two cents' worth, as a classical Indian dancer and as an overly pensive woman of South Indian descent.
When the rave reviews about Vanaja started pouring in, I made it a point to go see it right away when it released in Boston last week. Two hours went by in a flash. I didn't feel happy and uplifted at the end, but I wasn't ready to slit my wrists either. That's tough to pull off in a film; I can appreciate that.
The very first striking thing about the movie was the language. Telegu is, incidentally, my mother tongue. I don't speak it very well, and I have a very limited vocabulary, but I can understand it mostly. Whenever I've seen it on the screen (which hasn't been very much), it's been in mainstream "Tollywood" films. The voices of the women are unnaturally high-pitched, there's a particular kind of over-stylized dialogue, and of course, there are the the crazy song-and-dance sequences, not nearly as refined to the Western eye as its twin Hindi-language industry, Bollywood. So I was stunned in the opening scenes of Vanaja how beautiful the language sounded, how nice it felt to hear a language so familiar to me in a film that looked and sounded so gorgeous on the big screen. I was sucked in.
And when the dancing got going, I had to admit it was pretty good. Not professional, but very good. It was convincing and authentic, for whatever that's worth. The sound of the music was right on. Even her costume and jewels spoke of the place she was in -- her costume was not the bourgie pure silk dance costume of the classical dance elite in Chennai, it was an overshiny costume with fake jewels that the not-so-elite wear. That's even recognized in a throwaway line in the film, when the girl's dance teacher says to her other servant when giving Vanaja the dance clothes and jewels: "Oh, it's very cheap actually -- the fake ones." Even this tiny subtlety reveals the thing the film does best: expose the complexity and craziness of power.
Most of the reviews of this film have documented the storyline of a young low-caste girl of unusual spunk and intelligence, who goes to work at the estate of the landlady, a former dancer herself, in the village. Vanaja boldly and carefully wins the affections of the landlady and begins dance lessons with her, and it seems that dance is to be her salvation. But then the story takes a turn when unexpectedly, the landlady's son, Shekhar, comes home. An initially flirtatious interest between Vanaja and Shekhar turns violent, and her life is forever changed. It was at this point in the movie, I lost track of my expectations because the salvation-through-dance theme I was secretly wanting didn't happen at all. Most of the reviews of this film have noted that it's not a feel-good film, that the sexual violence somehow makes the movie more "real," but that in the end, Vanaja somehow "wins" in her own small way.
I don't disagree with these readings of the film, but I do think there was a lot more going on. The reason the film was so uncomfortable, especially in any portrayal of Vanaja's interactions with men, was because it was never clear completely who was controlling and who was being controlled. In the moments when it seemed like Vanaja was asserting something, demanding something, the interaction just ended up reinforcing the miserable status quo. We are never really sure if Vanaja really cares for the jerk Shekhar who is the father of her child, if she really wants him to marry her or if she uses it as a power play, a challenge to him because she knows it is impossible. And we never really know whether Shekhar is a natural outcome of his unbearably stratified society or if he's just an unquestionably despicable human being. Maybe we don't know those things because those characters don't know those things -- that's just how opaque and disturbing and absolutely impenetrable power relations are.
I think the postman lost the affection of most viewers in the US because when Vanaja asks for his help, he wants to sleep with her, just like everyone else. But really, at least what I saw was that he redeemed himself there, and so did she. The innocence of both of them betrays the ostensible adultness of their fantasies and motives. For Vanaja, to dance means to first do the namaskaram, when the dancer asks for the forgiveness of Mother Earth for stamping on her head. So she does it, out of rote habit, albeit reluctantly. She honestly has not a clue how to begin playing out the pornographic fantasy he thinks he wants. And when he sees that, he can't go through with it either, accuses her of doing it purposely, and throws her out.
When the film was over, I asked the filmmaker, Rajnesh Domalpalli, why he chose Kuchipudi, why the dance theme, and why, after choosing the dance theme, it doesn't really do much for her, despite its open-endedness. Her gender and low status seems to trump all, even as she chooses to walk away from her own child rather than submit to a lifetime of servitude. He said that he wanted the film to showcase an art that is losing popularity, that is performed less in Andhra Pradesh, and that he left clues in the end that dance would, or at least could, be in her future. I really liked that explanation; it made me feel better.
Domalpalli is an articulate, down-to-earth guy, a former engineer from IIT-Mumbai, one of the most elite educational institutions in India, a direct feeder school to multi-millionaire-type jobs in the Silicon Valley. But film, he says, he thinks will be his calling. And it's clear in this film that he has a gifted eye: for visuality, for the complexities of power in disturbingly unequal societies, and for the unbelievably beautiful talent he brings to life on the screen.
Published: Friday, October 05, 2007