Several decades ago, Pulitzer-prize winning film critic Roger Ebert brought new recognition to the films of Satyajit Ray by including them in his Great Movies book series. And now, he has given four stars (out of four) to the small Telugu film Vanaja made by first-timer Rajnesh Domalpalli.
Ebert also writes for Chicago Sun-Times and his column and reviews are syndicated to some 150 newspapers across America.
Last year, he surprised many people by including a different kind of Indian film, Taal, in the Roger Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival held at a university campus in Champaign, close to Chicago. The festival has been going on since 1999.
Ebert found in the film a moving story with engaging visuals and unforgettable music. The film's director Subhash Ghai, who attended the screening said he valued the recognition much more than the money the film had made.
And now, Ebert, one of the most influential of American critics and who has been battling jaw cancer for over three years, has given one of the extraordinary reviews any film has received from him in many years.
'Vanaja, a beautiful and heart-touching film from India, represents a miracle of casting,' he wrote. 'Every role, including the challenging central role of a low-caste 14-year old girl (played by Mamatha Bhukya), is cast perfectly and played flawlessly, so that it is a continuing pleasure to see these faces on the screen. Then we learn their stories. The actors, naturally and effortlessly true, are all nonprofessionals who were cast for their looks and presence, and then trained in an acting workshop set up by the director, Rajnesh Domalpalli. He recalls that his luminous star, Mamatha Bhukya, an eighth-grader, was untrained, and had to learn to act and perform classical Indian dances during a year of lessons set up in his family's basement!'
While Bhukya 'is a natural star,' he wrote 'her eyes and smile illuminating a face of freshness and delight. And the other characters are equally persuasive, especially Urmila Dammannagari, as the district landlady, who has to negotiate a way between her affection for the girl and her love for her son.'
Domalpalli based the film on his own story as a Columbia University film student over six years ago.
The review, nearly 900 words long, also declared: 'In any Indian film, many of the pleasures are tactile. There are the glorious colours of saris and room decorations, the dazzle of dance costumes and the dusty landscape that somehow becomes a watercolour by Edward Lear, with its hills and vistas, its oxen and elephants, its houses that seem part of the land. In this setting, Domalpalli tells his story with tender precision, and never an awkward moment.'
Ebert's review will mean a lot to the film, which after hibernating for more than year after its triumphant premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival and showing at major film festivals across the globe, is rolling out across America now. It opened in New York to a good but short review in The New York Times.
The Ebert review gave an adrenaline shot to Domalpalli who has been promoting the film with Mamatha for over a month, backed fully by distributor Emerging Pictures.
"The film hasn't yet been released in Andhra Pradesh," he says. "It has a universal story; it is not abstract but the distributors are afraid that it may not make money. If the film does well in America, and a lot of Indians see it, it will be make a big difference, and it could lead to the film being released in India.'
Vanaja is dong reasonably good business in its third week in New York. It has just added on a few theatres in Los Angeles and Chicago. It opens on September 21 in Boston, Philadelphia, Detroit, and Austin as well as additional cities across the country in the following weeks.