At the beginning of Bombay Rose, you might ask: why animation? This bittersweet love story set on the streets of Mumbai could have been live action. But by the end, you will understand that animation was the only way for writer-director Geetanjali Rao, here making her feature film debut, to express the poetry, longing, lyricism and aching nostalgia of her vision. Human beings would have sullied the flight of her rich imagination, the silken movement of the camera and some of the exquisite transitions would have been impossible.
Instead, she has used 2-D animation, colouring each frame by hand. The result is a film experience that feels like a walk through an art gallery. We often say for Sanjay Leela Bhansali's films that his frames are like paintings. But here, it's literal. Some of the visuals are so delicately wrought that they resemble Mughal miniatures – especially sequences in which Kamala imagines herself as a princess in ancient times. Which transported me back to my childhood, when I was struck by the beauty of Rani Padmavati in a finely illustrated Amar Chitra Katha comic.
But Kamala's reality is harsher. She sells gajras and toils ceaselessly to support her family – her infirm grandfather who brought them to the big city from the village and her little sister, who she is putting through school. Kamala desperately wants to give Tara a better life. The fragrant flowers that Kamala sells contrast with her crushing circumstances. But then comes Salim. Another character remarks – Anarkali wale Salim? But Salim is no prince. Like most of the other characters we see, he is a migrant. Salim has come to Mumbai from Kashmir, to try and eke out a living. He also sells flowers, bouquets that he picks up from a graveyard. Kamala and he make a tenuous connection but religion and their hardscrabble lives get in the way. There's also Ms D'Souza, an erstwhile background dancer, who teaches Tara English. The voice cast consists of names like Anurag Kashyap, Geetanjali Kulkarni, Virendra Saxena and Amardeep Jha, who plays Ms D'Souza.
Once upon a time, Ms D'Souza worked in Howrah Bridge, dancing as Madhubala lip-synched 'Aaiye Meherbaan', one of the most sensuous songs ever put on film in India. The memory of that experience in which her partner, also a dancer, held her waist through 42 retakes, keeps Ms. D'Souza going. As she and Tara walk through the streets, the city transforms back to how it looked in the 50s, becoming black and white, losing the ugly architecture and hoardings. It's a marvelous ode to a time gone by.
Geetanjali layers the tropes of Hindi cinema into Bombay Rose with great skill and understanding of how the fantasies on the big screen shape our worldview. So Bombay Rose has a hero, a heroine and a villain who thwarts their blossoming love at every step. But unlike the screen, life seldom has a happy ending. It's telling that the film is called Bombay Rose and not Mumbai Rose. Bombay evokes a nostalgia and a kinder, gentler time. But Geetanjali's script punctures this by showing us that violence is in fact eternal. That men have been waging wars since time immemorial.
Bombay Rose is a potent mix of reality, imagination and fantasy. Note how Geetanjali uses Hindi film music. Or the way she connects Kamala and Ms. D'Souza in the way a wisp of hair falls across their faces. Or the way flowers become a recurring motif, especially roses. This film is dreamlike in its textures, allusions and echoes. I don't think you're meant to ascribe a meaning to all that you see. Instead immerse yourself in its startling beauty.
You can see Bombay Rose on Netflix India.