Three love stories, the past and the present, fantasy and fact, reel and real weave a rich tapestry of stories in Gitanjali Rao’s animated film Bombay Rose. If a red rose connects the lives of the main protagonists when romance blossoms, Mumbai is the canvas on which Gitanjali’s stories unfold. Frame by painted frame, her 90-minute film is an ode to the metropolis and her people, their dreams, their disappointments and their determination to survive and find a foothold in the teeming city they call home.
Releasing on Netflix on March 8, the much-feted film, the first Indian animation feature film to be picked up by Netflix, was also the first animation film to open the Critic’s Week at the Venice International Film Festival. It travelled to festivals in Toronto, London and Busan. The movie has been chosen as a strong contender for the 2021 Oscars.
While telling the stories of the many characters in the film, such as Kamala, Tara, Mike, Salim, Shirley D’Souza, Antony and the city, Gitanjali brings in a range of issues that often discriminate against those living on the margins of society. Child labour, poverty, trafficking, homelessness, gender issues and communal tensions find a place in Bombay Rose but instead of cluttering the narratives, those references make it rooted in reality and enhance the richness of the movie.
Gitanjali says in a phone call from Mumbai that she was worried if the reality bytes would choke the smooth narrative of the film. The three stories were characters in her mind and the “struggle was to bring them together in a convincing manner.”
“My way of working has always been to interweave stories. In animated films, it is a natural way of working, to go from one realm to another. It can be from the conscious to the dream-like state, from the past to the present and from one situation to a completely different one. So my story-telling comes from that. I can visualise my stories before I write the script,” she explains about the film that was three years in the making.
City and its people
True to the spirit of the city, the characters speak many languages and even the songs reflect that plurality, right from the soulful song in Hindi sung by Kamala to the smoky, foot-tapping songs in Goan Konkani and the English ones that Mrs D’Souza enjoys listening to.
Gitanjali says that while staying in Bandra for sometime, she did see her characters there (the flower sellers, the hustlers, the Anglo-Indian community) and how life spills on to the streets.
“Those scenes stayed with me. I wanted to show the different strata of society, classes and religions. If you live in Mumbai and tell the stories around you, inevitably there will be love stories, there will be stories about different religions and castes…If I take a double-decker bus around Mumbai, I would be looking into the lives and houses of people. I wanted that quality in my film,” she elaborates.
She feels that when there is an insidivious attempt to divide people, the only way to protest against it is by celebrating the beauty and the diversity in our midst. “So, in a way, the film also talks about all those things. There are layers and layers of politics in it,” she says.
The seeds of the story was sown during a visit to Mandu in Madhya Pradesh, famous for its romantic fable of Baz Bahadur, the last sultan of Malwa, and Roopmati. Also keen on exploring the miniature painting heritage of Mandu, she decided to make Kamala a native of Mandu.
“The visuals come first when I get a story. Kamala reaches Mumbai to escape from a hopeless situation. There is also the love story between Kamala and Salim, a migrant from Kashmir,” narrates Gitanjali.
She points out that a story board comes first for her short films as well. In the case of the feature film, she had to give a script while looking around for funding. “The feature film was tough because what I was seeing in my head had to be put down on paper. Prior to Bombay Rose, I had started working on Girgit, a short film. Since the producer had faith in me, I gave the script after the story board was over. But it is a very difficult way to work, especially when one is working with a team,” she explains.
It is in the animatics stage that she sees the movie, when every shot, each mood and transition is in place. That is the blueprint of the film. She says that then it becomes easier for her to “slide the stories into each other. Simultaneously, I would rework the script.”
Gitanjali also throws in a love story between two women as she tips her hat to the cause of the LGBTQ community. “When we talk about a woman in love, there is an assumption that it has to be a man. I wanted to take on that assumption, in a gentle way,” she says.
Agreeing that she is thrilled about the OTT release, she says that the Netflix release ensures that Bombay Rose has a wide release and made it accessible to many more viewers. “The film works for everyone. It is not a dark film. There is fun, dance, music,” she adds.
Meanwhile, Gitanjali is already dreaming of her next film, one on nine cats and their lives.