Animator Gitanjali Rao Talks About Her Debut Feature Film “Bombay Rose”

“Painted frame by frame, “Bombay Rose” is a collection of love stories that are never seen nor heard about.” – GR

A self-taught animator and filmmaker, Gitanjali Rao emerged into the international stage with her animated short “Printed Rainbow,” which premiered at Cannes Critics’ Week in 2006. The film went on to win 25 awards and was shortlisted for the Oscar in 2008. Her four independently produced animated shorts have screened at over 150 international film festivals and received more than 30 awards. Rao’s body of work includes animated commercials, graphic novels, and illustrated stories. She is also an award-winning stage and film actor. “Bombay Rose” is her feature directorial debut.

Describe the film in your own words.

Painted frame by frame, “Bombay Rose” is a collection of love stories that are never seen nor heard about. Love between two young people who never speak nor touch each other. Love between two women who can never declare it. Set in the streets of a megacity’s love for Bollywood, these stories are spun together through the point of view of a single red rose. 

GR

What drew you to this story?

I often traveled across Bombay as a student — and later when I was working — in buses, trains, autos, and taxis. Traffic congestion would ensure one spent hours and hours on these travels. In times before smart phones, one looked out of the windows to see life spilling out of the streets. Even today I feel Bombay is a city that, as a dweller, passes you by [as opposed to being a place you live in].

I would see young girls and boys selling flowers and flirting and wonder how they express their love coming from different states, speaking different languages, with only the Bollywood as their reference to express love.

Somewhere in these travels within Bombay and outside in the rest of India, I found the story of my protagonists, Kamala and Salim. In a city which they literally build, clean, and construct, they have no citizenship and are vulnerable to the dangers of poverty and exclusion, yet they cannot leave or go back. Their life and their spirit of survival drew me to their stories. 

What do you want people to think about when they are leaving the theater?

That love — not violence, not discrimination, not exclusion, not obsession — is the way for us to be happy. To live and let love. 

Still from GR’s film

What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

“Bombay Rose” is an animated film that’s totally painted, frame by frame. More than the painstaking execution of the film, it is the premise of an animated film which does not fit into the conventional “made for children with star voices” formula that was the biggest challenge in making the film and continues to be, in selling the film. 

How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.

It was a long and arduous task coming from a country that does not fund its cinema at all. My efforts to raise the funds started in 2013 with the story of the film. French producer Les Films d’ici  had shown interest, but I needed to find the Indian partners to make the co-production deal work.

That took a good four years, during which I decided to make one story of the film into a 19-minute short film, “TrueLoveStory,” which premiered at Cannes’ Critics’ Week. That garnered more interest in the feature and I developed the script through the Cannes Next Step Lab and the NFDC Film Bazaar Lab.

I got the project into the co-production labs of Busan and Film Bazaar, where it was picked up by Deborah Sathe and her team from Cinestaan Film Company, our Indian partner. They completed the financing of the film with grants from France’s Cinémas du Monde and Qatar’s Doha Film Fund. 

Still from GR’s film

What inspired you to become a filmmaker?

Watching and becoming affected by the art or parallel cinema of the 1960s onwards in India.

My father introduced us to meaningful literature, art, music, and cinema right from our teens in a country obsessed with everything mainstream. My mother infused us with the skills of creating things with our hands and ideas. So we three daughters grew up wanting to do things which were never easy but always meaningful and sensitizing, using our independent thought processes.

I was seduced by the vibrant imagery of Indian cinema and wanted to become a cinematographer but financial constraints compelled me to start working after completing my art studies, so I learned animation on the job to enable me to draw and paint as well as make films with my art.

What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?

Being a self-taught animation filmmaker working in the advertising field for many years, I was taught to imitate other people’s successful styles, not create my own. So I learned to latch myself to workshops and labs to educate myself in cinema.

In one such animation workshop, a filmmaker I admired fervently, Jerzy Kucia from Poland, saw my first short film, “Orange.” He said that although the animation was very accomplished, it was not about who I am, where I come from, or what I feel and think. Trying to make a film that looked international was doing a disservice to my identity and style. That made me look at my own work very carefully and choose the more difficult path of creating my own style. It is advice I keep giving my students all the time. 

The worst advice was from a male well-wisher filmmaker who said, “You are so pretty, you will easily find financing for your films.” 

What advice do you have for other female directors?

The fact that a woman becomes a filmmaker or director herself means she needs no generic advice from other directors. Generic advice is a bore. Introduce me to a bunch of women directors over a drink and we’ll all have lots of advice to give to each other. 

Being a self-taught animation filmmaker working in the advertising field for many years, I was taught to imitate other people’s successful styles, not create my own. So I learned to latch myself to workshops and labs to educate myself in cinema.

The worst advice was from a male well-wisher filmmaker who said, “You are so pretty, you will easily find financing for your films.” – GR

Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

“Salaam Bombay!” by Mira Nair, for its unwaveringly sensitive portrayal of life in the streets of my city. When I revisited the film 25 years later, I realized how much of it I had imbibed unconsciously and how much it shaped my politics of storytelling. I admire Nair’s grit and courage even today and envy her zest for life and capacity for happiness in filmmaking.  

What differences have you noticed in the industry since the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements launched?

It has definitely given us women the courage to speak out boldly against the predators in the business as well as breach the comfort levels of male-dominated panels by discussing these issues both in the field as well as back home. And all this in spite of the fact that almost all the men accused are back in business. It has definitely exposed the huge hypocrisy of Bollywood and the rest of the film industries in India — there is no going back. 

Originally published in Women & Hollywood by Rachel Montpelier.