Rajnesh Domalpalli's Vanaja has a remarkable story behind it. Produced as the writer-director's master's thesis at Columbia, where he was advised not to make a feature, not to cast non-actors and not to shoot in 35mm (this tip he followed, using Super 16mm instead, though his adviser had suggested video), the film went on to acceptance at more than 75 film festivals worldwide, including the prestigious Berlin International Film Festival, where it won this year's Best Debut Feature award. It was made in South India, where it clashed with the local bureaucracy and the typically big-budget Tollywood film industry, and the cast wasn't't so much made up of non-professionals as it consisted of poor and sometimes desperately unemployed citizens who would have just as much taken a job cleaning the elephant cage as appeared on screen.
Certainly a behind-the-scenes look at Vanaja must be included on the DVD. But Vanaja would be and is an extraordinary film regardless of its background, and to wait to see it on video is a terrible disservice to its on-screen achievements, particularly Milton Kam's beautiful cinematography. Even as I mean to point out its stand-alone cinematic greatness – admittedly too late, considering I began with an introduction detailing its off-screen success – I have to address the fact that Vanaja looks amazing for being shot on Super 16. I wish that I could also highlight the film as the best thesis film I saw in 2007, but with Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep re-released earlier this year, Vanaja unfortunately has to settle for second place. Yet Domalpalli's film shouldn't really be compared to Burnett's; they are nothing alike in terms of cinematography, plot, narrative structure, affect or anything at all, really.