The realm of classical South Indian music and dance forms the backdrop for writer-director Rajnesh Domalpalli's debut feature "Vanaja," a cautionary tale of characters testing the limits of personal ambition in a social setting delineated by caste, class and circumstance. After an award-winning run on the international festival circuit, Emerging Pictures is releasing "Vanaja" in Los Angeles, where it should play moderately well to enthusiasts of Indian cinema before gradual expansion.

Vanaja (Mamatha Bhukya) is a clever, spirited 14-year-old girl caring for her widowed, alcoholic fisherman father (Ramachandriah Marikanti), who's heavily indebted to the local moneylender. When her dad urges Vanaja to leave school and find work, a fortuneteller's prediction that she'll one day become a great traditional dancer leads her to a position as a household servant in the home of Rama Devi (Urmila Dammannagari), a wealthy landowner and renowned expert in Kuchipudi dance.

After some strategic wheedling, Vanaja persuades Rama Devi to teach her classical Carnatic music, along with the steps and gestures of the highly expressive art of Kuchipudi. The girl proves an adept pupil and soon is performing in public and winning prizes. Meanwhile, her domestic duties bring her to the attention of Rama Devi's attractive college-age son Shekhar (Karan Singh), recently returned from the U.S. to run in local elections at his influential mother's behest.

Their playful flirtation turns violent after Shekhar lures Vanaja into a compromising situation, then rapes her. When she later gives birth to a son, the girl's father sees the child as a ticket out of poverty, offering to sell the baby to Rama Devi even though headstrong Vanaja has her own ideas about the child's future.

Independently produced outside the commercial South Indian film industry, "Vanaja" strikes a tone somewhere between social realism and family melodrama. Bhukya, who learned both acting and Kuchipudi dance for her role, leads an impressive cast of nonprofessionals whose naturalistic performances effectively restrain some of the film's more sentimental tendencies.

Despite some fine performances, however, the characters' stakes remain vague throughout much of the film, so the narrative never gains sufficient momentum, though Domalpalli displays a fluid directing style that lends "Vanaja" a dynamic visual flair.

Emerging Pictures
A Varija Films production
Screenwriter-director: Rajnesh Domalpalli
Producer: Latha R. Domalpalli
Executive producer: Andrew Lund
Director of photography: Milton Kam
Production designer: Nagulu Busigampala
Music: Indira Amperiani, Bhaskara S. Narayanan
Editors: Robert Q. Lovett, Rajnesh Domalpalli
Vanaja: Mamatha Bhukya
Rama Devi: Urmila Dammannagari
Somayya: Ramachandriah Marikanti
Shekhar: Karan Singh
Running time -- 110 minutes
No MPAA rating