Animation filmmaker Gitanjali Rao’s first feature Bombay Rose, in the making for five years, has been selected to open the Critics’ Week of the Venice Film Festival this month. The film, written and directed by Rao, is painted frame by frame and tells three tales of impossible loves: between a Hindu girl and a Muslim boy; between two women; and the love of an entire city for its film stars. A bachelor of Fine Arts from Sir JJ Institute of Applied Art in Mumbai, Rao is acclaimed for her animated shorts, especially Printed Rainbow (2006) and True Love Story (2014) — both were screened at the Critics’ Week of Cannes Film Festival. Ahead of Bombay Rose’s international premiere, the 46-year-old explains the idea behind the feature, the influence of music and how she came to terms with using dialogue.
Bombay Rose has been described as a ‘critique of the sexist male stereotypes of the Bollywood industry’.
That was the soul of the movie when I started working on it. The protagonist is Kamala, an immigrant from Madhya Pradesh. Salim, who falls in love with her, is an orphan from Kashmir, and, is extremely influenced by Bollywood heroes. Where do those who immigrate to Mumbai and live on its streets pick up the ways of courting a woman? It’s all Bollywood. I am critiquing that through this boy who emulates a hero.
Do you think toxic masculinity is a new phenomenon in Hindi cinema?
It started sometime in the ’80s, with hero-worshipping. Until then, there were movies about social realities. Even though there were boys running after girls, there was not so much of forcing themselves (on their love interests) or not taking ‘no’ for an answer. Shammi Kapoor was funny and had vulnerability. Rajesh Khanna movies were all emotional. The fight to save the girl started in the ’80s and the heroes were depicted as angry men. Chauvinism was always there but it was never toxic.
Is Bombay Rose an extension of your short film, True Love Story?
Yes. In Bombay Rose, three stories come together. Since it was difficult to finance it, I decided to take one of the stories and make True Love Story. I wanted to seek financing for a feature using this short film. While working on that and attending the NFDC Screenwriter Lab, the story of Bombay Rose kept evolving, even though the characters and the premise remained the same.
You once said that you don’t like using dialogue in your films. What made you change your mind with Bombay Rose?
To be honest, no producer would have had faith in a feature without dialogue. My friends, too, advised me against making my first feature non-verbal. It is tough to hold the audience’s attention unless you are making a movie like The Red Turtle (directed by Michaël Dudok de Wit in 2016).
How did you do the voice casting?
The dialogues of the movie reflect the languages of Mumbai. The characters speak in Hindi, English, Marathi, Tamil and other languages. Even though there will be subtitles, any Mumbaikar can understand them. We had a small budget for the voices and I wanted theatre artistes. I called friends (in the fraternity) such as (filmmaker) Anurag Kashyap, (actors) Makarand Deshpande and Geetanjali Kulkarni to help me. I find the rendition by Bollywood stars terrible.
Music has been a major influence on you. How did you use it in Bombay Rose?
For an animation movie, you do animatics first. It’s like a black-and-white storyboard of the entire movie on the edit table with voices and music, even a few rough sound effects. If I liked a piece of music, I did my animatics around that. They became part of my story. These music pieces were not original compositions. For instance, I believed that the song Hoon abhi main jawan from Aar Paar (1954) worked well for the mood of a particular scene. Or, Aaiye meherbaan from Howrah Bridge (1958) was apt for the Anglo-Indian character, Shirley, who worked as a dancer in the films of the ’50s. Through her, I take a journey into the music of the era. Then, I set that against what Hindi cinema has become today — extremely macho.
Bombay Rose has been in the making for five years. Did you experience periods of frustration?
The production started in 2017. Everything that we do is manual. All the frames are drawn and coloured. Each frame is coloured individually. It required a lot of hard work and but was rewarding. It was the process of getting the finance that was tiring. During this period, we became like a family. Two artistes fell in love and got married. When we disbanded the team after the film was done, many were in tears.
Even though so much VFX work is done in India, why have there been so few animation movies?
In case of VFX, there is no risk attached to it. You are catering to a business and making profit. When it comes to making Indian feature films, you need producers to back your project. They don’t want to try anything different. Making an animation movie is expensive and takes around two years. Live action cinema has a history of 80 years, while we have been making animation movies for 15-20 years. You can’t expect an Indian animation movie to match the box-office figures of a Disney or live-action movie. That’s why many resort to tried-and-tested subjects like mythology. If we do 20 movies, it will change the perception.
A recent news headline about you read: ‘A movie by October actress goes to Venice’. What was your reaction?
Interestingly, when October (2018) released, some said ‘Filmmaker Gitanjali Rao makes her movie debut’. Having acted in Satyadev Dubey’s plays, facing the camera was not a big deal for me. For a scene in October that needed me to have tears in my eyes, even though they gave me glycerin, I didn’t know how to use it. Just like one performs on stage, I had tears in my eyes in every take of that scene.