Animated characters are not cartoon characters. I don’t like when my characters speak. If I can hear my painted characters, it is jarring and I lose interest. My film has to be a series of paintings with sound that tells the story,” says Gitanjali Rao, who won the Golden Conch Best Animation Film Award at the Mumbai International Film Festival (MIFF) last month for True Love Story. In this 18-minute film, set in the streets of Mumbai, Bollywood fantasy dazzles its characters — who go about experiencing the exuberance and anguish of love, braving the grimy, grungy reality that the metropolis offers — before they encounter its rather reckless side. Rao, an indie animation filmmaker, narrates their journey in this kaleidoscopic world and makes bold statements without any dialogues.
Though her characters don’t speak, they inhabit an interesting world — something the Mumbai-based animator-illustrator envisioned in her debut film, Printed Rainbow. In this, an old woman and her cat escape their lonely and urban black-and-white world into the fantastical world of match-box covers. The heart-warming film won three awards when it premiered at the Critic’s Week of the Cannes Film Festival, 2006. “I make it very challenging for myself by not giving them dialogues,” says Rao, who graduated from Mumbai’s JJ Institute of Applied Art in 1994. However, she has given in to the need to use voices in Orange (2006) and Chai (2013). The first is a dialogue between two girls on love and its loss over wine and cigarettes. The latter, a documentary-style short, merges live action with animation, to tell a story of migration though four different people who have makeshift tea stalls.
Mostly self-taught, what has helped Rao — who also makes advertisements and illustrations for education aids — carry the narrative forward is her training in theatre. “The advantage of being a stage actor is that one has to express with her body language and face,” she says. Rao did theatre for nearly four years, working with Satyadev Dubey and Sunil Shanbag, among others, while studying at JJ. “I was more interested in sets and lighting than acting. Yet, when I started acting, I found it very rewarding,” says Rao. Born to architect parents, who love movies and music, she was exposed to various forms of art.
But filmmaking also attracted her. After she graduated with a gold medal in applied art, she chose a career in animation as it combines the art of illustration and filmmaking. “To educate myself in animation, I joined Ram Mohan Biographics, set up by veteran animator Ram Mohan. They used to take students from various art colleges and teach them animation on the job, at a low stipend,” she says. This was followed by a stint at Mumbai’s Famous Studio, where she was into design, storyboards and animation for commercials and small projects. She directed some of them.
That prepared her to make animation films and Printed Rainbow followed. For three years, she laboured over every frame of Printed Rainbow — dedicated to her mother and her cat — before Cannes festival officials fell in love with it. “A former curator of the festival happened to watch it when Rajivan Ayyappan was working on its sound at a Paris studio. On the curator’s suggestion, I sent it for the Critics’ Week,” she says. Eight years since, it continues to be a festival favourite.
Notwithstanding the cash award she collected at MIFF, being averse to dialogues has not always paid off. For one, it has not fetched her producers. All her films so far, Printed Rainbow, Orange and True Love Story, are independently produced, barring Chai, which was one of the five shorts released on the internet by Viacom 18 last year. Even though she tried to raise funds for Girgit through collaboration and co-production, she did not have much luck. Anurag Kashyap, whose production company tried to raise funds for Rao’s feature film, says, “For animation artists not trying to ape Disney, it is extremely difficult to raise money, especially in a country where animation is referred to as cartoons and are perceived to be only for children.”
Silence apart, what distinguishes Rao is her artwork. “The impression of space that live action or a documentary film can create, I do through drawings and paintings. Once that’s achieved, it takes animation to another level,” says Rao. In spite of the growing popularity of 3D, Rao has stuck to the more traditional way of animation. “In 3D, you almost cheat to create reality. I never wanted to do that. I wanted to express it like Wong Kar-Wai, who takes reality and paints it like a canvas.”
According to Kashyap, what makes Rao special is the way she looks at the world, how she observes tiny details and recreates them, her imagination and her originality. Praising her style, Ram Mohan says, “Though she is comfortable using digital technology, she draws mostly from traditional Indian paintings.” According to Anand Patwardhan, head of MIFF jury, Rao is an artist who brings a world view to her art rather than looking at a mere frame. “I have seen Painted Rainbow and True Love Story, and both took my breath away not just because of the technique but also the intriguing and engrossing content.”
As Rao’s life experiences are growing, the urge to express those have become stronger. “When I get curious about people, a story emerges,” she says. Yet, she has some serious self-confessed handicaps: she can’t crack a joke. “Good storytellers can tell a joke well. I fumble with the punchline, and never get its timing correct. However, I can paint the story for you. And to tell a 30-second story, I will take 30 days,” she says.
Telling these stories through animation is a lengthy process, and can easily take up to three years. “I need to say a lot of things in a short and also keep emotions that drive the story,” says Rao. Keeping that in mind, she worked on the expression of first love as a story for True Love Story. However, this film is meant to be a part of a feature-length film, where three stories find a meeting point much like in the iconic Mexican film Amores Perros (2000). The other stories will revolve around the old woman, who had a bit role in the MIFF-winner, and a migrant boy.
Rao plans to make these three movies in phases. “I spent six years trying to find funding for features. It’s so much easier to make a short film,” she says. True Love Story was made on a shoe-string budget. For her next, the short film on the old woman, Rao wants to go the crowdfunding way.
Before she returns to the storyboards of this cherished project, travelling with True Love Story will be on her agenda. Cannes features on it too. She is sending it to the international festival. Hopefully, the film will win them over this time too. n