The Golden Bear hugs Rajnesh Domalpalli, but he yearns for the Golden Lotus. Rajnesh’s debut film, Vanaja, has been awarded the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. Yet, his dream is the Golden Lotus from National Film Awards in India.
Golden Bear is not the only award he has won. Thirty two international awards credit his student film at Columbia University; The New York Times calls this venture “absolutely timeless” and Newsweek considers it “auspicious". However, his film has not been released in India. Rajnesh remains unknown in the country he is from, writes about and cherishes the memories of.
“I have approached many distributors in India, but they call it a regional film because it is in Telugu [Dravidian language primarily spoken in Andhra Pradesh, a state in the South of India]. Due to linguistic issues, it cannot be released in metropolitan cities of the country, such as Mumbai. Telugu cinema industry is a monopoly. It has always produced star-driven, glamorous movies amidst which a film such as Vanaja with a cast of non-professional first-timers, will find no audience,” says Rajnesh, explaining why he could not release his film in India when Bollywood (the Indian film industry) has global presence.
“Bollywood is a known entity worldwide. When I was in Cameroon, people usually asked if I were an Indian and knew Amitabh Bachchan [the legendary Bollywood actor] because they think that Bollywood minus Amitabh Bachchan is equal to zero,” says Rajnesh at a coffee shop near Columbia University, on a cold March afternoon.
Rajnesh, a dusky young man whose eyes shine forth in their full luster, was born and raised in the Indian city of Hyderabad. He attended a convent school in Andhra Pradesh, South of India, “where my mother started teaching so that she could stay around me even when I am in school,” remembers Rajnesh.
After schooling from Hyderabad, Rajnesh studied computer engineering at Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Mumbai. He worked in Silicon Valley until he decided to study filmmaking from Columbia University in New York, where “a quick intelligence and boundless curiosity about film dominated Rajnesh,” says Richard Pena. Mr. Pena was Rajnesh’s professor at Columbia University and is the head of the Lincoln Center’s Film Division, America’s prestigious film presentation organization.
His creative juices found an outlet before Columbia – at IIT. While there, his short story, “The Dowry” was chosen for broadcast by BBC’s World Service in Sept 1984 and Aug 1989. At IIT, he was also introduced to South Indian classical music.
Ask him about his literary influences and emotional triumphs and discover that his father’s encyclopedic knowledge and his mother’s entrenched humanity have left impressions on Rajnesh’s personality. He, however, is closer to his mother than his father.
“My mother provides what my father lacks,” a child-like innocence blossoms Rajnesh’s face as he discusses his relationship with his only confidante in the world: his mother.
“When I need to share anything, I go to my mother because my father provides a logical solution to a problem that I am able to achieve myself. Despite knowing what my mother would say in any situation, I consult her. I reach out to my mother not to learn anything new but to reassure the old.”
Today, Latha R. Domalpalli is more than Rajnesh’s mother; she is also Vanaja’s producer. What is her take on Vanaja’s inability to release in India?
“Given the indifferent climate we have to Art house films in Andhra Pradesh [a state in Southern India], it would not be surprising if the release of the film there were to take a generation or more,” she writes in an email from India.
She also writes that while the film has garnered critical acclaim the world over, a true sense of fulfillment must wait until it is released and does well in India.