To explain why she likes the path less taken, Gitanjali Rao brings up her “commie upbringing”, thanks to Konkani-Gujarati parents who ran off and got married and got ostracised. It’s an inspiration. She has always avoided what comes easy. She has chosen to pursue things in spite of them not working out. She keeps at it, like her mother wants her to. Don’t crib. Don’t sell your soul. Don’t prostitute yourself. These are mantras. All of this wisdom tumbles out one sunny afternoon in Venice, where Gitanjali’s first animated feature, Bombay Rose, opened the Critics’ Week section. The story she tells about how the film got here results in another mantra: Do your best, but you also have to be lucky.
There was a bit of luck — okay, maybe a lot — in how Gitanjali’s first short, Printed Rainbow, came to be screened at the International Critics Week at Cannes, in 2006. Her sound designer was working on the film in a studio in Paris. A girl walked past. She was intrigued. She happened to be a selector. Luck. “Imagine, this was 2006. There were hardly any Indian films at Cannes then. It made me think: Am I really this good?” A slot at Cannes helps. It’s not just the bragging rights. It helps you go to funders and say: Here’s my idea. I don’t know if it will make money but I have had a film at an A-list festival. Then came TrueLoveStory, which played at the Critics Week in Cannes, 2014. Gitanjali had a vision of Bombay Rose even back then. She took a small portion from it, the romance between the flower-sellers, and made TrueLoveStory. She wanted to see if her skills were good enough for a full-length feature. TrueLoveStory was both a test and a pitch.
Gitanjali has no interest in competing with the big VFX shops in India, the “animation factories”. She likes animation because it can do things live-action cannot (unless you build huge sets with tons of money). She’s talking about the folk styles she loves, the dream sequences in Bombay Rose, which include a winged horse with the face of a woman. The only live-action film she worships is Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams. She’s referring to the segment titled The Crow, where Martin Scorsese plays Vincent van Gogh and the paintings turn into surrealistic sets, rendered through CGI animation. “Unless I can do something like that…”
Bombay Rose has plot points about migrants, same-sex love, child labour. A lot of men did not get the same-sex angle. A lot of women did. Gitanjali thinks it may have something to do about not knowing things or not wanting to know these things. But she is sure she wants these things in her films. “After your mid-30s, politics and social issues become important. It can’t just be about me and my life and what sari someone has worn.” Speaking of. (Shallow segue alert.) For the Bombay Rose premiere, Gitanjali wore a pink sari, but no, it was not planned and it wasn’t about the flower in the film’s title. She happened to see her sister, the designer Priyadarshini Rao, wearing the colour. “I never wear pink. I never wear makeup. But it’s Venice. And the team thought it would be fun to do these girly things…” After Venice, it’s a string of festival screenings, but no date’s set yet for a home premiere. Mumbai can wait. For now, the world awaits.
At the same venue, the ridiculously charming Quattro Fontane hotel, Deborah Sathe spoke about Bombay Rose and how she’d “had an eye” on Gitanjali Rao. She’s the director of international operations, Cinestaan, and her brief is to find films from India that can work on the international stage. She reels off a list of names. Bornilla Chatterjee’s The Hungry. Konkona Sen Sharma’s A Death in the Gunj. Shubhashish Bhutiani’s Mukti Bhawan. “We sold that [last film] around the world, including Cyprus and Greece. It was a two-and-a-half-year labour of love. I love the idea of two markets speaking to one another.” These are “Indian films”, but are also universal stories. The Lunchbox is about loneliness and love. Mukti Bhawan is about fathers and sons. “It connects everywhere.”
Deborah spoke of another arm of Cinestaan that handles the bigger, more mainstream Indian films. Badhaai Ho, Stree, Bharat, Kabir Singh have been distributed in North America, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Philippines, China. Gully Boy was something of a feather in the cap. Cameron Bailey, artistic director of the Toronto International Film Festival, said that the Berlin premiere of the film was the best he had seen in 20 years. But Deborah handles the (for lack of a better word) artier films. “We don’t champion Bombay Rose because it might make money. We champion it because it’s a work of art.” Which is not to say the company is a charity. It’s about doing a film at the appropriate budget. They do the sales figures in advance, guesstimate the minimum recoupment. By securing international co-producers, they open up the possibility of treaties and tax breaks, and go after “soft financing” (money that does not have to be aggressively recouped) and rely less on commercial investors.
But how does Deborah know what’s out there, especially outside Mumbai? Sometimes, it’s hearing about something at Film Bazaar or MAMI. Sometimes, someone will just cold-call and send in a script. Sometimes, she’ll spot a book and commission a script. Sometimes, someone will send in a treatment note, and she’ll greenlight a screenplay. There have even been cases of a near-complete film that’s been picked up. Her latest project, one that she’s talking about for the first time, is an adaptation of Anosh Irani’s The Parcel. It’s about a person from the hijra community who trains virgins for their “breaking in”. At one point, there’s a moment of reflection. What happens? Well, hopefully, another Mukti Bhawan, another Bombay Rose, another instance of “Indian universality” happens.