Set in rural South India, a place where social barriers are built stronger than fort walls, VANAJA explores the chasm that divides classes as a young girl struggles to come of age.
Vanaja (Mamatha Bhukya) is the 14 year-old daughter of a poor, low caste fisherman, struggling with dwindling catches and mounting debt. When a sooth-sayer predicts that she will be a great dancer one day, she goes to work in the house of the local landlady, Rama Devi (Urmila Dammannagari), in hopes of learning Kuchipudi dance while earning a keep.
She is hired as a farmhand, and her vivacious ways and spunk soon catch the landlady’s eye: when she is entrusted with tending the chicken, she’s caught, instead, chasing them into a general pandemonium, and lying unabashedly to conceal her pranks. To keep her out of trouble, Rama Devi promotes her to a kitchen underhand, where she comes up against the old, crusty and extremely loyal Radhamma (Krishnamma Gundimalla) – Rama Devi’s cook.
It isn’t long before Vanaja gets herself invited to play a game of ashta chamma against Rama Devi. Seeing that losing isn’t the mistress’s forte, Vanaja deliberately gives up her game – a fact that doesn’t go unnoticed - and which eventually secures her the landlady’s mentorship – first in music, and then in dance. Vanaja excels at the art, and seems to be on a steadily ascending path when Shekhar (Karan Singh), Rama Devi’s 23 year old son – handsome, muscular and rather insecure, returns from the US to run for local political elections.
Sexual chemistry is ignited between Shekhar and Vanaja (still a minor at 15), as flirtation and innuendo bloom. But, the situation suddenly turns ugly when Vanaja’s superior intellect pits her against Shekhar in a public incident which ultimately humiliates him in front of his mother. Matters escalate, spiraling downwards and she is pitched into a tale of class, family and animus from which there is only one escape.