- Ravi Swami
"Bombay Rose", Dir: Gitanjali Rao, 2019
Indian animation director Gitanjali Rao's feature animated film debut "Bombay Rose", a film that has had a long gestation period of over a decade as she struggled to secure financing, during which she experimented with different approaches to telling the story of a romance between the Muslim son of a street-side "Paan seller" and the Hindu flower seller who live on opposite sides of a Mumbai street, that included stop-motion animation and a mixed media approach before settling on a style similar to her award-winning animation short "Printed Rainbow" (2006) - the only difference being that this film was not an entirely solo effort like her earlier short film.
Available to view on Netflix, the film is in the running for this years' Academy Award for best animation feature as India's submission in that category and was supported by grants from French and Middle Eastern co-producers.
"Printed Rainbow" did much to raise Rao's profile in France as a film-maker to watch following its' premiere during International Critics Week at the Cannes Film Festival in 2006 and she was invited to sit on juries there afterwards, while the synergy for Middle Eastern finance comes from the design of sections of the film that are clearly inspired by Indian miniature painting of the Mughal era.
Rao brings a raft of influences to the visual design of the film, ranging from her own personal painterly style, through to Mughal art described above, to the richly painted folk-art styles that adorn Indian trucks which overall give the film a very Indian flavour.
Taking into consideration that feature animation in India has charted a rather uneven graph with more box-office flops than successes, even with the support of studios like Disney, getting any kind of long-form animation project beyond the concept stage is something of an achievement, more so because this was fundamentally an independent animation feature without the backing of a big studio.
That said, it's bracketed as an "art film", a term that reveals a tendency of Indian film critics to pigeon-hole films that don't fit the commercial mainstream and that by implication may only appeal to the educated middle-classes rather than the average viewer, even though the story uses the streets of Mumbai as a backdrop for a tale about the everyday struggles of people who could be seen to be on the edge of poverty.
The film opens with a scene set in a typical suburban cinema as a "Bollywood" potboiler romance is playing out on the screen and Rao uses this intermittently as framing device within the film to represent the dreams of both Kamala, the flower girl, and Salim, the paan-seller's son, who watches her from afar and gradually falls in love with her, unaware that she works in a dance-bar at night and is being harassed by Mike, a pimp who offers her a chance of escape from the streets by offering to buy her a ticket to Dubai.
Woven into this plot is the parallel story of Shirley D'Souza, a widowed Anglo-Indian English teacher and former actress who gives English lessons to Kamala's younger sister, Tara, and who reminisces about Mumbai when it was Bombay in the post-colonial era of the 1950's and whose days are spent visiting an Anglo-Indian cemetery to pay her respects to her late husband with a single red rose.
Animation as medium might seem ideal for a story that tackles contentious subjects such as inter-faith relationships and also the complex diversity and contradictions of Mumbai in particular - issues that in live-action could be more difficult and problematic to depict especially for the Indian audience more attuned to the highly varnished, sugar-coated reality of "Bollywood" cinema, and Rao manages to sidestep any suggestion that showing India in all its' shades puts the country in a bad light by depicting it as a vibrantly colourful, hopeful and even magical, when depicting Mumbai life in the streets and in its' slums.
"Unvarnished" is how I'd describe a film that has a bitter-sweet story at its' centre, both in terms of the animation, which is economical, given the rich digitally hand-painted quality that Rao was striving for, and also the uncompromising tone of the plot, which sets out to show what life is like for those who eke out a living on Mumbai's bustling, overcrowded streets.
Having had some direct practical experience of working to limited budgets and tight schedules and finding ways to tell stories economically from a technical standpoint I can see that in spite of harnessing the talents of some veteran Indian animators and a studio specially set up to produce the film, achieving the look of the film must have been a challenge when Rao was used to producing every frame of an animated film herself and it's arguable that the film falls short in terms of polish in the animation when compared to other animated feature films that are out there competing for attention.
Would the film be any better with more finessed animation ? - I think not, though it's interesting to speculate that Gitanjali Rao, given a larger budget and more resources, might explore more finessed animation to tell her stories. What "Bombay Rose" might lack in terms of technical proficiency and the craft of animation it more than makes up for in charm and making full use of the medium to differentiate it from live action.
For me, the scenes where this animated depiction of Mumbai and it's inhabitants really gelled were those that were designed to be a subjective viewpoint as seen through the watch-maker's magnifying lens of Kamala's grandfather - a roadside watch repairer - complete with spherical distortion, and that suddenly suggested a first-person viewpoint of Rao herself, seeing the world around her through the lens of her chosen medium of animation, and it is in those moments that any doubts you may have about the film simply disappear.