A million painted frames of Bombay

Ritika Bhatia | Updated on October 25, 2019

Gitanjali Rao’s debut feature Bombay Rose, premiered and awarded at MAMI, is a delicately woven love letter to a city

Gitanjali Rao became a familiar face last year through Shoojit Sircar’s critically acclaimed October where she played the grieving mother of a comatose daughter. Rao says she required no make-up for the part as she often landed up on the set after staying up all night working on Bombay Rose, her own debut feature. “I would show up sleep deprived and harrowed, and Shoojit would say, ‘Wow! Your look is perfect. Let’s roll!’,” Rao recalls.

The first Indian animated feature to open the Critics’ Week at the Venice International Film Festival earlier this year, Bombay Rose travelled to Toronto, London and Busan before returning to a warm homecoming in Mumbai, the city to which it is an ode. Cine buffs queued up for its India première in the competitive India Gold section of the 21st Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival with Star last week. The film even won the Silver Gateaway, India Gold Award and the Manish Acharya Award for New Voices in Indian Cinema at MAMI.

The film revolves around an interfaith couple. Kamla, a young girl, weaves jasmine gajras by day and is a bar dancer at night. Salim, a Kashmiri flower seller, is an orphan who works across the road from her in Mumbai’s bustling Juhu beach. “Before it was labelled ‘love jihad’, interfaith love was a natural part of our culture and cinema,” Rao says over the phone. Salim and Kamla see each other every day and fall in love; it’s a tragic love story straight out of Bollywood, only the villain here is the prevailing circumstances.

The film is a homage to everything quintessentially Bombay — Bollywood, romance, the sea, the rains, the traffic, flowers, and cats. Cats feature in almost all of Rao’s short films; in real life, she is mom to eight of them.

A track in the film follows Mrs Shirley D’ Souza, an ageing Bollywood dancer with Miss Havisham-esque eccentricities, dealing with loss and desire. Rao’s earlier film Printed Rainbow too featured an old woman who has rich flights of fancy, and a viewer pointed this out during the post-screening interactive session. Rao agrees, “Most people draw from their past, I think I draw from my future!”


Rao, an alumna of the JJ School of Art, worked under the tutelage of Ram Mohan, widely considered the father of Indian animation. Printed Rainbow, her first animation project, premièred in 2006 at the Cannes Critics’ Week and won three awards, including for best short. Rao started working on a story involving two immigrants as early as 2012-13. True Love Story, the silent short, was intended to be a pitch video of sorts to secure a producer. Instead, it was selected for the Cannes Critics’ Week in 2014. The widely acclaimed film won Rao grants from Cinema du Monde and the Doha Film Institute.

The feature script for Bombay Rose was developed from True Love Story in the NFDC Screenwriters Lab and later at the Film Bazaar Co-Production Market where Rao found her Indian producers, Anand Mahindra-backed Cinestaan Film Company. Co-produced with the French boutique studio Film d’Ici, Bombay Rose was created at the Mumbai-based PaperBoat Animation Studios where a team of animators painted a million frames to bring this larger-than-life film to screen.

The beauty of the film’s hand-painted animation reminds one of last year’s visually breathtaking van Gogh biopic Loving Vincent. “While Loving Vincent was a mammoth oil-on-paper project, we did the same thing, but on Photoshop and Corel Painter. We began with a team of 20 people, and towards the end expanded to 60 with 8-10 leading animators,” Rao says. She prefers 2D animation over the pomp and show of 3D. Rao takes us through the process of bringing ideas to animated life. “I first decide which art form animation I want to work with, and then I set my story around that,” she says. In Bombay Rose, she worked with the Mughal miniature art and Pakistani truck art. “Kamla is from Mandu in Madhya Pradesh, so I explored that region’s art in her story. Salim is from Kashmir, so I used the colourful truck art in his flashbacks,” she shares.

The film is an unapologetic tribute to Bollywood and its magic, but Rao has also effectively satirised it. The 19-year-old Salim watches Bollywood films and is even inspired by the heroes on-screen to fight thugs and save the girl. Only, reality is a far shot from films. Rao says, “I wanted to shine a light on how Bollywood’s depiction of gender roles often negatively impacts the youth on the streets. Bollywood has the capacity to mesmerise us, but I also wanted to critique it. I love my country, but I do want the right to dissent!”

Rao stayed away from casting star voices in her film. “My characters are all from the streets, so I wanted them to have real voices. Only Raja Khan, the Bollywood hero in the film whom Salim idolises, was voiced by film director Anurag Kashyap.” Singer Cyli Khare gave voice to Kamla, and veteran theatre actor Makarand Deshpande was the voice of the antagonist.

The ambitious narrative veers past many lives in the densely packed Mumbai streets, and sensitively portrays the harsh realities of the city’s most vulnerable — the children. The film oscillates between the ’90s Bombay to Bollywood fantasy and mythology, making the plot slightly unwieldy. But the frames remain as vivid as ever. Rao’s hat tips, ever so often, to Bollywood (the local bar is called Pyaasa and the paan shop Gulabo) tend to go overboard. But despite its intermittent over-indulgence, Bombay Rose remains an exquisite work of cinema, best viewed on the big screen.

Though Indian animators work extensively on many Oscar-winning animation around the world, local animation suffers as commercial prospects are few. “The biggest challenge in making this film wasn’t the painstaking labour and execution of hand-painted animation, but selling the idea of an animation film for adults, that too without star voices,” Rao says. That challenge isn’t entirely overcome, as producers are still deliberating on the film’s theatrical release. One can only hope that the spectacular festival run of Bombay Rose will give it a fillip.

Ritika Bhatia is a Mumbai-based freelance journalist and film professional

Published on October 25, 2019

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