Let me start by acknowledging that there is always something expected from Eastern films that have garnered acclaim in international critical circles. If one were to line the DVD cases of the releases against a wall and throw a dart blindfolded, chances are the missile would pierce a quotation from a Western reviewer lauding the “rich colors” and calling any number of aspects of the film “balletic”.
Zhang Yimou could not duplicate a home video of his children playing in their yard without a host of critics clambering to stamp it with some bombastic praise such as, “The intoxicating palette weaves through the film like the fine silk which swaddles the mysterious protagonists.” However, in fact, it is just another mediocre over-saturated work and the characters are not mysterious—they are, to viewers from the West, anyway, “foreign”.
Now, I am not discrediting any of these works—I enjoy Hero as much as the next guy and I respect the lavish cinemography—and I am aware that Vanaja is from the sub-continent not the “far” East. I merely propose that films made in countries in which color is more prominent must stop being praised for their “lush bouquets of rendered tones”. This is baseline performance, not exceptionality, and to reward it is to artificially inflate the catalogue of foreign films solely because they diverge from Western convention.
It would be as if every film made in the British Isles was complemented on its “wonderful use of overcast skies and muted shades of earth”. Western audiences are just not accustomed yet to the spectacle of the sari or the kimono. Furthermore, whereas to many it seems cultured to speak of those with different facial features or skin tone from oneself as “intriguing”, such comment merely belie a Western chauvinism that “white” (yes, the assumption is that this is a “white” point of view) is the norm and everything else is somehow rarefied in comparison.
Therefore, I will not give Vanaja any extra credit for its color or use of Indian performers in an Indian film. With these considerations out of the way, Vanaja is a very mediocre film. The story revolves around the eponymous young, poor girl who is brought into the service of a landlady where she is instructed in dance, a skill she has always dreamed of learning. However, when the landlady’s son returns from abroad to run for political candidacy his misconduct with Vanaja ignites issues of class, gender relations, and the structure of Indian society writ large.
I found nothing terribly revolutionary or profound about the plot, desensitized by a wealth of similar stories in literature dating back to the Renaissance (most likely earlier as well). It is not that such films should no longer be made, as obvious the social pressure of caste and sex are still prevalent enough to motivate the production of such pieces. However, I feel that with such typical films there is an onus on the director to incorporate something fresh into his or her telling of the narrative. Vanaja seems very much to be banking on the xenophilia of a Western world that is more susceptible to the tears of an unfamiliar face rather than those of their own.
Furthermore, I take issue with the sporadic pacing of the movie which lurches to a halt for every one of the set pieces of Vanaja’s Kuchipudi dances. Although I find myself attracted to these extended sequences, I am keenly aware that this is a cinema of attractions winning spectators by showing them sights they do not see in ordinary lives. Again, this is emblematic of the film as a whole to which Western audiences will doubtlessly flock, motivated by the promise of getting to empathize with a foreign figure. How much fuller is the person who can say they cried for an Indian girl…
If one mistakes me to think that my criticisms are leveled at the audience rather than the film itself, let me correct them. Although I do disagree with the tendencies of Western viewership which I have identified, I censure Vanaja for exploiting these characteristics. With no real effort at invention and a recycled plot, the film is little more than those ads to donate money to African children, i.e., for just $20, you can have the satisfaction of “understanding” the plight of Indian women.
The special features seem somewhat encyclopedic, showcasing discrete dances and tenets of Indian culture. This is actually a pleasant divergence from most extras which are little more than hastily thrown together featurettes or the same trailer played three different times with clips in different order.