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Gitanjali Rao’s ‘Bombay Rose’ tackles India’s big issues while wrapping them in a stunning package to delight its audience

In today's world, filmmakers have to invent new ways to get their message across while also managing to entertain their audience. After all, the longest lines at this year's Venice Film Festival belonged to 'The Joker' -- a sensory overload boasted by performances of a lifetime. And yet, as one of the women artists whose work is featured in the festival, Gitanjali Rao comes up on top. With a beautiful film that manages to leave the viewer pondering India's issues, while also humming catchy tunes and feeling for its animated characters.

I first met Gitanjali Rao and her executive producer, Cinestaan’s Deborah Sathe in Doha, during this year’s Qumra event. I felt like I was in the presence of filmmaking royalty as Rao belongs to a league of artists who make what I believe to be the most difficult types of films in the world: Animated features.

There is something totally magical about an animated film, in that the filmmaker has to invent everything from scratch. Not only the story, but instead of finding a cast of actors to help achieve their vision, an animator has to create the characters — finding their faces, voices and nuances within the depth of their subconscious.

Well, that said Rao and her team managed to produce a rare masterpiece, from scratch! But while ‘Bombay Rose’ and its filmmaker could have simply found contentment in her film’s beauty, the dreamy colors, perfectly drawn characters and haunting music — the feat didn’t stop there. No, Rao went one step further and tinted the film with India’s contemporary problems and social issues, thus securing an added layer to an already perfect film. I loved watching ‘Bombay Rose’ and I loved interviewing the talkative, insightful Rao afterward.

The synopsis for ‘Bombay Rose’ reads quite simply:

“Amidst the struggle of survival in a big city, a red rose brings together three tales of impossible loves. Love between an unavailable girl and boy. Love between two women. Love of an entire city for its Bollywood stars.”

Following is my chat with Gitanjali Rao, which took place in the garden of Quattro Fontane, an idyllic hotel on the Lido, just steps away from where the Venice Film Festival takes place every year.

‘Bombay Rose’ screens in the Critics’ Week in Venice, a great sidebar where the coveted filmmakers of tomorrow can be watched today.

Filmmaker Gitanjali Rao

What I love is the fact that you talk about all these heavy duty issues in your film and yet you do it in a way that people can digest it. You deal with Kashmir, the Muslim Hindu struggles because of Modi which are currently happening in India, etc… Was that what you set out to do from the beginning?

Gitanjali Rao: I don’t think these are heavy duty issues, they are what I live with every day and everyone who lives in India deals with on a daily basis. So it comes into my story unconsciously. Most people keep it out of their stories, because it’s entertainment and may be too heavy for people to digest. But I feel if I’ve not done this much, I’ve probably not done my duty. The reason why you make films is to make people think about things around them, which they may be very happy to not look at. In society, it is happening in front of you, but the trick is to not look at it. It’s like you eat meat but you don’t want to see the animal being killed in front of you — it’s that kind of psychology.

How did you choose some of the social, political issues?

Rao: Like for example, about Kashmir, I started writing the script for this film six years back and everyone in the world only knows about what is happening in Kashmir in the last one and a half months. But this has been happening there since 1986, this screaming ourselves hoarse and realizing we are treating them like Palestine. So lets now talk about it and get into the discussion. 

I came to my story intact and my producers were a little worried. It just happens that now it has become a topic of canonization. I want these topics of canonization to be there and to be talked about.

You even deal with another taboo, child labor in India. Can you talk about that a little?

Rao: You know child labor, we have a law and everybody celebrates it, to not have children below 14 working but the fact is if those children aren’t working they starve to death. You don’t give them an alternative like in other countries, where the institutions take care of them. 

It’s like treating a disease by simply putting a bandage on it.

For me instead of taking one issue and making an entire film about it… It’s not like each individual has just one problem. Each person in this part of society, the lower strata of society, is dealing with twenty, thirty problems very very seriously. So why only take one… 

If you’re not Indian and you’ve never heard of India and live on this planet where none of those issues exist for you, you can simply watch the film as this beautiful work of art, a masterpiece of color and art and music. And that’s it!

Rao: Thank you, because that is what we’re striving for. My films are internationally more well received than in India so I have to be very careful that if someone doesn’t understand a reference, I’ve lost that audience. So I do some subtitle changes also, because you don’t want to cut away your audience, ever. You’re making a film to absorb them into your story, so I want to include audiences. Not make it easy but definitely include them and not make it difficult for them. 

How do you manage the acting, character development part of the animation itself?

Rao: That’s why I’m an actor as well. So it’s easy for me to do that but it was tough for my animators to do it. How we do traditional animation is you have to feel the movement within yourself in order to draw. Of course if it’s a horse or a cat you can’t but most character animation you have to look into the mirror, move, feel… So we do a lot of scientific study of how expressions will change and things like that. 

It’s very noticeable in how they smoke, how they move and the nuances which are clearly human.

Rao: They’ve all studied the conventional Disney form of animation where it’s formulated and made simple. Then there is Nick Park and people who are doing it in their own style in another medium. For my animators I give them a new style. They asked “give us actors, shoot it and we’ll animated.” And I said no, “I want you to act, to feel, you to bring it out from your characters.” I said give me three months and if it’s not happening we’ll do it your way. Finally at the end of it they felt this was more rewarding, although more difficult. This beauty comes from not having any reference.

How many years did it take for this project, beginning to end, and how many people worked at the animation? I know it was quite a reduced number from what a big studio animation would be…

Rao: It took six years but that’s because four years went into finding the financing, during which I made my short film. Twenty-one months of actual production. We finally had eight to ten animators, key animator who were making the line drawings, then ten animators assisting them, doing the shadows. Then we had the paint team, which was the largest, we started with five to ten and went on to fifty, sixty artists towards the end. In the beginning it’s all line drawings and the it all gets colored. The maximum was a hundred people, we started with twenty.

So now, lastly, I want to talk “representation” with you. There was this big article as the festival kicked off about how there were only two women filmmakers in main Competition. But what I think a lot of media fail to notice is that when there is a festival you should look at the entire line-up! Because I think films like yours or ‘Scales’, also in Critics’ Week here in Venice, are actually indicative of what the filmmaking industry is working towards. You’re literally the filmmakers of tomorrow, here with your first or second work. Why aren’t we looking at that?

Rao: It’s always been like this. I know in Cannes also. Everyone is chasing the official selection. The official [selection] is thinking of commercial work, and these [sidebars] are finding talent. A few years back people would not have questioned two women directors [in Competition] in Venice, now they are. Isn’t that great, that’s what MeToo has done. People are not quiet about it anymore. 

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