Self-taught filmmaker Gitanjali Rao has been one of the premier voices of India’s fledgling animation scene. Her feature-length debut, the animated film “Bombay Rose,” made waves on the festival circuit in 2019, and multiple versions of it released on March 8, including an English-only dubbed version on Netflix, much to the wonder of animation and movie lovers, like me.
Painstakingly hand-painted, frame by frame, the film is visually dazzling, veering between styles and time periods to create a living, breathing continuum of Indian art and cinema. However, as mesmerizing as it is — given its haphazard narrative, the film’s delights begin and end at its aesthetics.
The film is split into three intersecting stories set amidst the hustle and bustle of thronging Mumbai city, which Rao and her team of animators have presented in a hue of fiery reds, oranges and earthy tones. Only at night do the colors cool down, as if to connote the isolation one may feel despite the constant hubbub of activity. The story focuses on a single neighborhood of Mumbai, the entire experience serving as a microcosm of a Mumbai, many of us would recognize.
“Bombay Rose” is a story of outsiders in Mumbai, and it expands on Rao’s 2014 Cannes short “True Love Story,” the silent tale of a roadside flower-seller falling for a bar dancer. This flower-seller eventually becomes the feature version’s Salim (Amit Deondi), a Muslim youth whose parents were killed by militants in Kashmir, while the bar dancer became Kamala (Cyli Khare), a Hindu girl escaping an arranged marriage in her rural village. In the film version, she’s caught in the web of predatory pimp and middleman Mike (Makrand Deshpande), who hopes to ship her off to Dubai as a maid.
Rao’s portrait of Mumbai opens in what else but the darkened movie theater, which has come to define the city, opening with a film-within-a-film unspooling in a single-screen theater, another reality that is fast receding, and a bunch of rowdy fans hanging on to every line of dialogue belted out by a swaggering macho superstar. The film is called “Pyar Ka Fasana,” the sort of title that belongs firmly in the past. A kiss in this film is heavily censored, which frustrates the audience. Even before setting foot in the “real world,” “Bombay Rose” sets the stage for its depiction of Mumbai, as a place where people from all over the country gather and live in frayed harmony.
The movie megastar resurfaces in a real-life encounter with one of the principal characters in the pre-climatic moments of the film only to spark the realization that his heroism is no more than make-believe.
These escapist movies that keep the industry’s wheels turning with their mix of melodrama, music and wish-fulfilment are right up the street for the likes of the Kashmiri youth Salim, orphaned by the unrest in the Valley and forced to seek refuge in the city of dreams. For a living, he sells flowers stolen from a cemetery. Life is tough and unstable, but silver screen fantasies and love keep Salim going.
The woman he is in love with, Kamala, is no better off. She, too, fights daily battles to stay afloat. She sells flowers in the daytime and works in a dance bar at night. Danger lurks in the form of a vicious gangster, Mark (Makarand Deshpande), who promises to whisk her away to Dubai. Needless to say, the ruffian cannot stand the sight of Salim and attempts to physically intimidate him into leaving Kamala alone. You are Muslim, Kamala is Hindu, Mark tells him. As if Salim needs a reminder. None of the love affairs that “Bombay Rose” portrays are shorn of an element of risk.
Kamala herself was saved from being married off to an older man thanks to the decision of her grandfather, a watchmaker (Virendra Saxena), to flee to Bombay from their upcountry village. Between the two they make enough money to be able to send Kamala’s sister Tara to school.
Salim and Kamala’s forbidden romance is rife with references to Bollywood classics, in particular the iconic umbrella scene in the song “Pyar Hua Ikrar Hua” from Raj Kapoor’s 1955 feature “Shree 420,” the story of a country boy who travels to Bombay in search of work. Where Salim and Kamala were the sole focus of Rao’s “True Love Story,” they now make up a third of Rao’s feature-length ode to the ever-changing city. Their tale intersects with the story of Kamala’s younger sister Tara (Gargi Shitole), a sprightly tween imp appropriately nicknamed phataka (“firecracker”) who befriends a young deaf dishwasher on the run from the police, and with the story of Tara’s prim and proper English tutor, Ms. Shirley D’Souza (Amardeep Jha), an elderly Christian widow who reminisces about her past as a 1950s movie star by getting lost in old films and songs.
D’Souza lives alone in a quaint old house with a cat and a host of toys and mechanical contraptions that, like her, have seen better days. The old lady pines for a lover she lost years ago during her heydays as a Bollywood starlet, teaches the schoolgirl to distinguish red from crimson and purple from carmine. But in her own world, she often slips into black and white, remembrances of her past.
Tara, on her part, extends a helping hand to D’Souza when her favorite hand-wound clock and a glass ball that holds a dancing couple die on her one day. Tara turns to her grandfather for help. The old man can still perform miracles pretty much like the city that he now calls home, where, somewhere or the other, hope is killed and ignited every minute, where life never stops no matter how tough the going gets. “Bombay Rose”, despite its dark overtones, never lets the colors fade. It does not shy away from allowing its characters the joy of a happy ending, or at least something akin to it.
Most of the film’s characters are migrants, like Kamala, Tara, and their kindly grandfather (Virendra Saxena), who runs a shop by the beach. But even those with roots in Mumbai seem to belong to a different time and place. When Ms. D’Souza walks down the street, the city transforms into an idyllic black-and-white version of itself, back when it was populated by whimsical tram cars and horse carriages, and when it was still called Bombay. It’s the transformative power of memory, made physically manifest. Meanwhile, an elderly antique salesman smitten by her, Anthony Pereira (Shishir Sharma), laments the fact that no one still alive knows how to repair the various trinkets and music boxes lining his shelves. In “Bombay Rose”, nostalgia and humanism drip from every frame, nostalgia existing side-by-side with its wistful reality.
The characters’ separate stories are intriguing when divorced from the larger whole, and the film features numerous resplendent scenes which look unlike anything put to film. When Kamala walks through Mumbai’s crowded markets, she pictures herself as a princess of the Mughal Empire, traipsing through magnificent halls with Islamic arches and surrounded by magical realism, as the film subtly begins to resemble Mughal miniature paintings.
Another astounding sequence is told from the perspective of a honeybee nestled within the petals of a rose, watching spirits materialize and frolic at a Christian graveyard after sunset. Any one of these could be a short film worthy of acclaim.
But the disparate tales in “Bombay Rose” rarely coalesce, the film’s editing trying to find some balance.
By day, Kamala strings flower garlands together on one side of the road, while Salim sells roses on the other. Shots where they gaze at each other from afar are individually magnetic, but time and time again, Rao edits them together through wipes rather than straight cuts, using the cars and buses which pass between them as transitions. The idea makes sense at first — these star-crossed lovers, belonging to different faiths, are separated by the city’s fabric — but the vehicular wipes also apply to everything from jump cuts within scenes to the transitions between dreams and reality. And after a while, they lose all meaning, and only serve as jarring interruptions.
The ways the characters weave in and out of each other’s lives feel like interruptions as well. Kamala and Ms. D’Souza are connected thematically, since they both indulge in vivid fantasies of the past, but their link is nominal at best. Where Ms. D’Souza’s daydreams are tethered to reality — her late husband, and the Bombay of her memories — Kamala’s escape into Mughal artistry feels out of place.
In “Bombay Rose,” all main characters in the film have had to abandon a bit of himself/herself in order to fit in and survive in a harsh environment. Their backstories never lets us forget where these people have come from in their quest of a better life — locate them at a remove from what their lives have now become, or are in danger of becoming.
They cling to their dreams and seek escape either in the fanciful yarns that Bollywood spins or in the belief that their fortunes will change for the better sooner than later. Either ways, it is more hope than confidence that enables them to keep chipping away at the obstacles in their way.
The multiple stories that constitute “Bombay Rose” aren’t necessarily all neatly tied up in the manner of a Bollywood melodrama, but the film’s fond tribute to popular Hindi cinema and the impact that it has on the masses hits home. Above all, the film is an elegy to a city that was and to the tenacity of people whose lives hang by a thread and whose ‘heroic’ acts keep the metropolis ticking.
The soundtrack is wonderfully eclectic. It blends Yoav Rosenthal’s original score with a medley of cherry-picked Hindi film hits ranging from “Dil Tadap Tadap Ke Keh Raha Aa Bhi Jaa” and “Main Abhi Hoon Jawaan” to “Yeh Mera Dil Pyaar Ka Deewana” as well as Brazilian crooner Caetano Veloso’s “Cucurrucucu Paloma,” and a Konkani love song, all of which instantly weave their way into our hearts.
“Bombay Rose”, playing on Netflix is envisioned and rendered with great skill and artistry, its storyline spoofing Bollywood in a manner that is neither patronizing nor dismissive, is an absolute must-see.
Anu Ghosh immigrated to the U.S. from India in 1999. Back in India she was a journalist for the Times of India in Pune for 8 years and a graduate from the Symbiosis Institute of Journalism and Communication. In the U.S., she obtained her Masters and PhD. in Communications from The Ohio State University. Go Buckeyes! She has been involved in education for the last 15 years, as a professor at Oglethorpe University and then Georgia State University. She currently teaches Special Education at Oak Grove Elementary. She is also a mom to two precocious girls ages 11 and 6.