By Arun Kumar
Washington, Sep 2 (IANS) As Telugu film "Vanaja", winner of 16 major international awards, opens its commercial run in America, director Rajnesh Domalpalli hopes discerning viewers will come to watch the movie that's yet to be released in India.
Released in New York City Friday, the story of a young girl's dream - her desire and determination to be a dancer as she struggles to come of age - was shot in rural Andhra Pradesh - "a place that is as rich and diverse as it is beautiful", Domalpalli said.
"For American audiences, India can be a confusing medley of beggars, cows and call centres. But real India is very different. It's a place of wonder, horror, the utmost filth and the greatest beauty all rolled into one," Domalpalli told IANS in an e-mail interview, when asked what impact the film would make on American audiences fed on Hollywood films.
"Some perhaps will go back to the monkey eating, heart tearing scenes of 'Indiana Jones' and the 'Temple of Doom'."
"When an audience empathises with the protagonist and is led into the world of the film, I think they will come to question whether comparisons have meaning at all when dealing with cultures that span the globe.
"Is a soprano in a classical concert 'better/more advanced' than a Burra Katha (a folk tale told by travelling bards) on a makeshift stage? Are the smooth lines of a glass and concrete skyscraper more 'beautiful' than the fading peeling walls of a dilapidated haveli? Is 'fair' better than 'dark'?
"But then of course, there will always be those who refuse to question - and the film is not for them," Domalpalli said.
Describing how he took up the "Vanaja" story as his debut film, he said working on his thesis at Columbia University he decided to go back to a film that he had seen a long time ago called "Sophie's Choice" - and to a moment of mother-child separation in it.
"As I began to write, however, I found that the story began to meander. Gradually, it began to evolve into a study of class structure and conflict, things that I suspect I had been exposed to while growing up in small town Andhra, where my father had worked as a dam construction engineer.
"To my surprise I also found that in a small insidious way, my love for our art and culture also gradually began to infuse the script. Right from the old mansions that I had grown up in, to our classical music, our dances, our Janapada gitams (folk songs) to the light around a village fire to shy water-lilies in a village pond... I found that the story was now a vehicle to showcase what I loved and cared for having grown up in our rural countryside.
"Of course, films must entertain, but when they can convey so much, wouldn't it be criminal to waste the opportunity?" Domalpalli asked.
With an early version of the script ready at the end of his fourth semester, Domalpalli's initial intent was to find financing for the film in India and then try the US.
"But local producers have a revulsion for anything that doesn't have a woman with the 'correct dimensions'... and no male lead? Well, we never got that far.
"The US was a different story. People doubted the 'marketability' of the film, its lack of 'stars' was as much of a flaw as my script that 'lacked cohesion,' I was told. But the biggest drawback was - me, or rather, my utter lack of experience.
"It was only when I showed my professors a rough cut of the film, and they approved, that purse strings finally came loose," he said.
Domalpalli said the biggest challenge was very definitely finding appropriate talent.
"Given the rural nature of the story, I was certain that non-actors drawn from hutments, labour camps and our vast middle class was the right choice.
"But I was faced with not just putting them through lengthy acting training, but having the lead learn Kuchipudi dance, the landlady learn Carnatic music, and grappling with a whole swarm of issues that came with working with first timers.
"As a first step, household staff and their friends were roped into various capacities - making flyers that would be inserted into newspapers at night, canvassing at schools, visiting local hutments and persuading dwellers to come for auditions - while simultaneously combating rumours that we were after their kidneys, pleading with government bureaucrats, putting up posters etc.
"When we wanted to place an ad in the newspapers for the landlady, we found to our surprise that we couldn't do so. So instead, we decided to advertise for household help: 'Female, aged 35 to 50, needed to care for elderly parents'.
"When unsuspecting ladies turned up for an interview, conversations would inadvertently steer towards film, what a wonderful art acting was, and how rarely ordinary people got a chance to prove their talent.
"Problems didn't come as fires, they raged as wild fires. As I have said before, for any independent film to succeed, a hundred miracles need to happen, and I feel grateful that in our case they all did."
Asked about his future plans as a filmmaker, Domalpalli said he had started a script that weaves several elements together.
"Tribal life vis-à-vis city life, issues of deforestation, problems of the elderly, and Carnatic music are some of the threads that I'm working with, but it's turning out to be a very tall order."
"Vanaja" will be released in Los Angeles and Chicago Sep 14, Boston, Philadelphia, Austin and Detroit Sep 21, and over a dozen other US cities after that.« Previous News — Next News »
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