Director: Gitanjali Rao
The Critics' Week sidebar section of the 76th edition of the Venice Film Festival was inaugurated with a screening of Gitanjali Rao's Bombay Rose. It's the director's first full-length animated feature. It's a beautiful film. It's also a film that's hard to put in a box and say, "This is what it's all about!" The laziest descriptor you could slap on it is probably "dreamlike", but the 90-something minutes teem with waking life. Maybe we should begin by calling it a wistful memory piece set in the city in the title: not Mumbai, but Bombay. Brushstroke by thick brushstroke, in the opening stretch, the location comes alive – the skies with swirling crows, the shops, the traffic, and a hoarding featuring a Hindi film, Pyaar Ka Fasaana. Note that title, which translates to "love story". It's not a Mumbai title. It's an unapologetically Bombay title, from when Hindi cinema wasn't calling itself Bollywood.
The theatre screening the film is appropriately old-world, a single screen. The audience is old-world: hooters and wolf-whistlers. And the action on screen is old-world, too – only the eight-pack of the hero is new. (His scowly face reminded me of Ajay Devgn.) He breaks open a door, fights off the villain, saves the girl. He gives her a rose and begins to kiss her, but the act is censored, to a groaning chorus from the audience. This clip contains everything you'll see in Bombay Rose. Heroes and villains. Unconsummated actions. Saviours. Romance. Roses. But there's a difference. The life we see outside the theatre isn't as filled with happy endings. Which is not to say Bombay Rose is a sad movie. It's just that things are real in a way they aren't on the big screen (and weren't in once-upon-a-time Hindi cinema).
It's a beautiful film. It's also a film that's hard to put in a box and say, "This is what it's all about!" The laziest descriptor you could slap on it is probably "dreamlike", but the 90-something minutes teem with waking life.
The excellent voice cast is filled with names like Anurag Kashyap, Amardeep Jha, Geetanjali Kulkarni, Virendra Saxena, Cyli Khare, Amit Deondi, Makrand Deshpande, and Shishir Sharma, and they draw us into the real-life Pyaar Ka Fasaana. (It's a Hindu-Muslim romance, no less, which was a staple of old-world Hindi cinema.) The hero is named Salim. The name can't get much more archetypal, and you see this when a passing policeman asks about his Anarkali. (The "Anarkali's" name is Kamala, and these characters first appeared in the director's 2014 short film TrueLoveStory, which was screened at Cannes.) That other staple of old-world Hindi cinema, however, is absent. This is no rich-poor love story. Salim and Kamala don't live on opposite sides of the tracks. They're both poor. They are on opposite sides of a busy road by the beach, where they sell flowers. She makes gajras from buds in a basket. He peddles bouquets and single roses to couples. Flowers are everywhere. In Kamala's name. In Ms Shirley D'Souza's garden. (The old woman likes to talk to them.) In the cemetery, where they become a conduit between the living and the dead, in more ways than one.
Cats are everywhere, too. The dead, too, are everywhere. In Salim's past, in Kashmir. In the vaporous spirits that rise from graves in the cemetery. In the "dead" toys that are brought back to life. Or even in the sense of a Hindi cinema that is no longer alive. When Shirley sets out on a long walk, we hear Dil tadap tadap, from Madhumati – and in response, the Bombay around her turns black and white. Let's not forget that that film was about ghosts. Shirley – the love-child of Miss Havisham and Zohra Sehgal from Saawariya – is a background dancer from that era. She lives in a world that's half-dead. How else to explain her partner, who's there yet not there, whom we "see", yet don't!
Bombay Rose subverts not just Bombay cinema's storytelling, but also the implicit assumptions of Bombay cinema.
What do these motifs mean, these flowers, these cats, these legions of the dead, or even time itself (an old man is a watchmaker, an old woman sees her younger self in a mirror)? Bombay Rose is not that kind of movie. Would you examine a Kanjivaram sari and ask what the temple border means? It's all part of the fabric, part of the design in the weave of the Salim-Kamala story. Like him, she's a migrant. That, too, is a very Bombay thing. Like the rain in closing parts of the film. Like the bar dancers. Like the actor (last name Khan) whose car runs over a pedestrian. Like the sea and boundless dreams of the people who come to stare at it. Like the incessant traffic – cars, buses, carts, animals – that moves across the frames.
The traffic imparts a sense of 3D, coming between us and the subjects of the film. Sometimes, the window of a car will pause for a second and frame Salim and Kamala, as though enshrining them in their own little screen. The animation is lovely. I'd say "spectacular", but that's too big, too technological-sounding a word, something you'd use for a Pixar movie, with its banks of gleaming computers. This animation is gentler. It feels like something from a human hand. Salim is a bright yellow. Kamala is a bright red. They're the colour of youth. Shirley, on the other hand, is browns and greys. The palette transforms in surprising ways. When a bee enters a rose, we get a flower's POV that looks as though the world has been shot through a rose-tinted fish-eye lens. When Salim finds out the truth about Kamala, he vanishes into the blackness of night, as though enveloped by his gloom. Real-life characters have shadows on their faces. In dreams, every feature is distinct, like in Mughal miniatures or Kalighat or Madhubani art. But these dreams aren't movie dreams. They are fairy-tale dreams. There's a difference.
There are winged horses, tall towers overlooking scenes of war, renditions of Goan songs and Cucurucucu Paloma (which was immortalised in Pedro Almodovar's Talk To Her). None of this is "Hindi film" stuff. Bombay Rose subverts not just Bombay cinema's storytelling, but also the implicit assumptions of Bombay cinema. The hero isn't just Salim. It's a boy named Tipu, who saves a cat. It's a girl named Tara, who saves Tipu. It's Kamala herself, who, in a dream, saves Salim from a hunting party's arrows. Look closely, and you may find that Kamala is a gender twist on the Bachchan character in Deewar, who got into disreputable businesses so that his younger brother could enjoy the privilege of an education. Did the director intend this? I don't know. But what's Bombay without Bachchan?
The animation is lovely. I'd say "spectacular", but that's too big, too technological-sounding a word, something you'd use for a Pixar movie, with its banks of gleaming computers. This animation is gentler.
What happens to Salim and Kamala? Why am I not narrating more of a story? Because it all comes and goes in waves of (sub)consciousness, and trying to lock a narrative design around the film may end up literalising it. Take the fact that the two prominent Hindi film songs featured are Baar baar dekho from China Town and Yeh mera dil from Don. Both films (the latter is essentially a remake) feature doubles, and Bombay Rose is filled with twinning imagery. A bee in a flower finds an echo in a lyric ("phool pe bhawara mandarata hai…"). Drummers on the street underscore two acts of rescue. Guru Dutt's cinema is recalled not just in a bar named Pyaasa but also in Hoon abhi main jawaan ae dil from Aar Paar. I don't know why and I don't care to know, either. I like these images swirling in my head, and that is what Bombay Rose does: it elevates what could have been a prosaic romance into the realm of dreamverse.