Gitanjali Rao is revered within Indian animation circles. She has independently produced four animated shorts – Orange, Printed Rainbow, Blue and TrueLoveStory – that have been shown at more than 150 international film festivals, winning more than 30 awards between them. Her first feature, Bombay Rose, will open the International Film Critics' Week at the Venice Film Festival on Wednesday, with the festival running until Saturday, September 7.
It is the first Indian animation to receive the honour and International Film Critics' Week chief Giona Nazzaro described it as a "strong and interesting critique of the sexist male stereotypes of the Bollywood industry". Bombay Rose is also part of the line-up for the Toronto International Film Festival next month.
It's a dream come true for the filmmaker, 46. But it's also a dream that has been six years in the making, including two years spent painstakingly painting the film's entire storyboard frame by frame and designing each character.
What the themes of the film say about Mumbai
The result is a movie about the intersection of love, religion, politics, Bollywood, immigration and the unyielding nature of Mumbai. Rao explores these themes through the overarching plot of Kamala, a young Hindu bar dancer and flower seller who finds herself in the position of having to choose between her duty to her family and her blossoming love for Salim, a Kashmiri boy orphaned due to militancy. Kamala and Salim are joined by Shirley, an English teacher, as they try to survive the harshness and poverty of Mumbai.
The characters are voiced by an eclectic cast of theatre actors, most notable among them being Anurag Kashyap, who portrays Raja Khan, and Makrand Deshpande, who voices Mike. "Kamala, Salim and Shirley define Mumbai for me," Rao tells The National. "They work and live on the slums and streets of Mumbai. They know the city in a way we who live in skyscrapers never can. They're not outsiders, but somehow they're always treated like they are, no matter how long they've been here.
"Bombay Rose is an ode to the invisible people of Mumbai, and their unseen realities. Everyone wants to tell the stories of the people who make it big, but what about all the unsuccessful ones? I wanted to see what would come out when I put unsuccessful characters together, letting their religions, insecurities, conditioning and life experiences mingle and war with each other even as they fall in love and co-exist side by side."
An important undercurrent that runs through the narratives of the characters is the unfriendliness with which Mumbai is shown to treat the poor who flock to it in hope of a better future. Another theme is Bollywood's role in shaping the realities of the working-class immigrants who leave their families behind when they come to the city.
"So many of these people are young, impressionable and alone," says Rao. "Bollywood becomes their means of surviving in a city that doesn't want them. And they absorb the ideas that Bollywood sells.
"If a young man of 18 was to come to Mumbai and fall in love, how would he approach it? It would be by aping Shah Rukh Khan or Salman Khan, the consequences of which can be both endearing and tragic. I feel Bollywood refuses to acknowledge the responsibility of what it sells."
Building up exciting characters
Incidentally, the three protagonists in Bombay Rose originally belonged to another feature – Girgit – that Rao worked on several years ago. The film was shelved by the producers, but the characters stayed with her and she started building plots and sub-plots around them.
"Building a character that excites me is more important than finalising the story," Rao says.
"Once I had settled on Kamala, Salim and Shirley, I kept adding details and building narratives around them. I did workshops with these characters in mind. They matured to a point that even I was fed up. I knew then that they were ready for a movie."
Making a 2D animation feature film is an expensive undertaking. Most projects require about five years to finish, with significantly higher budgets than live-action films that can take about six months to complete. With Indian animation still in its infancy and not well funded, projects such as Bombay Rose become even more difficult to create.
"Our only exposure to local animation is the standardised template that all mythological kids' cartoons and films follow," says Rao. "I was not making a children's film. Obviously, that made the job of finding funding and co-producers that much harder."
"Show, don't tell" is the approach Rao settled on while trying to secure funding. In between her paid freelance work, she made a 19-minute short film that showed prospective producers exactly what Bombay Rose would look like and her vision for the film.
It was a sound decision given that Rao has incorporated several wildly different styles of animation within the film and has used artistic influences such as Mughal miniature paintings, folk art, truck art and leather puppets to depict individual narratives. In 2013, she found her first partner, French production company Les Films d'Ici, that helped her develop the idea. Four years later, they were joined by India's Cinestaan Film Company. During peak production time, a team of between 60 and 70 artists worked with Rao to complete the film.
With their historic moment at Venice to come this week, Rao and Bombay Rose are well on their way to international fame. And yet, none of that guarantees a theatrical release. "We're still figuring out the details," says Rao. "But with online streaming platforms becoming all the rage, the number of small films like mine that actually go on to be released in theatres is dwindling. Let's see how our little film does."
You might think that the prospect of a labour of love never being screened at a commercial theatre would be upsetting for a filmmaker, but Rao is curiously upbeat. "I'm from that generation that believes in making art for the sake of art," she says. "The money comes later. For a long time, I thought of making money as a bad thing. My [eight] cats and I don't need much in life."