Filmmaker Gitanjali Rao is no stranger to festival acclaim. Her debut feature Bombay Rose, which has been six years in the making, has been selected to open the 34th Venice International Film Critics’ Week, the second Indian film to ever do so after last year’s Tumbbad. Previous to this, Rao has travelled the festival circuit multiple times with her award-winning animated shorts Painted Rainbow (2006) and TrueLoveStory (2014), both of which were selected at the Cannes International Critics’ Week. Rao even served on the section’s jury in 2011.
Produced by Cinestaan Film Company, her film Bombay Rose is set in the maximum city and follows a love story between two street flower sellers who dream of a better life. Outside of being one of the most respected names in Indian animation, she’s arguably most recognised for her role in Shoojit Sircar’s October, a performance which received much attention. At her suburban Mumbai residence, Rao spoke about the painstaking process of making an animated feature, her turbulent journey as a filmmaker and why animation still lacks an identity in India.
You’ve previously said Bombay Rose is ‘actually a reaction to Bollywood. If you are somebody poor and want to do something, Bollywood can crush you.’ Is that based on your own experiences as an independent filmmaker?
It is a metaphor in a way, yes. But what I describe in the film is more the toxic masculinity that is shown onscreen which influences the protagonist of my film and has tragic consequences when applied in reality. That’s the predominant thought in the film. But yes, in a sense it is also a metaphor. The live-action Bollywood being such a big success, if you’re an animator, it’s like being a minority and you have this big war to fight.
Because when Hanuman came out and did the numbers that it did, all of us knew that the numbers were false. A lot of animators were not paid their salaries for the two years that the film was made. Therefore, the budget was small and it made those kinds of profits. Then you have a Roadside Romeo, which is all the Bollywood influence where you have a non-animator as a director making animated films. When the money on those films wasn’t recovered, it (animation) plummeted. At that time, we felt cheated. You should let this industry be and nurture it, you don’t compare it to Bollywood. You can’t expect a baby to make as much money as an old man. And the history of animation is just 10-12 years. You can’t put the two together.
You have to compete with Bollywood, you have to get Bollywood voices. And you’re comparing it to Hollywood also. Disney has been making animated films since the 1930s and is making that kind of money and you make one little film and you have to be compared to Disney. So yeah, if you’re an independent filmmaker or any sort of minority in that sense, you will always have your dominant enemies who can be a challenge, or an inspiration, you just have to find your way through it.
Given the 6 years it took to make this film, the challenges in financing it and the years of work that you’ve put into other projects that didn’t end up happening, would you say you’re an expert in resilience by this point?
No, the kind of person I am, there’s no other way I know of doing things. I don’t give up. I’ve taken a lot of decisions in life. Like I decided I won’t get married and have kids, because then I wouldn’t be able to give this time to animation. For me, this (film) is like having a child. It just took 18 months instead of 9 months to give birth to it.
This is the path that I’ve chosen to follow and because I chose it, I have no regrets. I don’t feel I’ve lost out on anything. Having completed this film actually a much greater achievement than being in Venice. Because my films have been to Cannes, so I know something or the other will happen with it. But to be able to finish the film was the best part and I know the next one will be easier.
Apart from the scale of the project, was there any big difference in going from shorts to working on a feature?
Yeah, I’ve always worked alone. So, to translate my style to a bunch of other people was tough. It was something I discovered as I worked with the artists. My way of working is painting frame by frame. I make the first frame and paint the next one and then the next one. They broke it down to one person who will draw out the frame, the next person will do the shadows and the third person will paint, which is totally different to the way I do things. Mine is a very organic process, sometimes I go from here to there and then if it’s not working, I start again. That’s not practical for a feature film.
Initially, it was like training them (the artists) in what my style needs from them and that’s tough. It’s a lot of hand-holding in the beginning but then they just fly. Some of them did better stuff then I could’ve ever done.
There are various people lending their voices to Bombay Rose, including Anurag Kashyap and Geetanjali Kulkarni. How important is it to find the right voices for a film like this?
I cast at a very intuitive level, unlike Disney or Pixar where the voice and the actor is captured, and then you make the animation look like the actor. All my characters were people from the streets, regular people, so I didn’t want any star voices. I wanted an authentic voice. So I looked in theatre, knowing that you can find extremely good actors but with voices that aren’t necessarily famous. I designed my villain keeping Makarand Deshpande in mind, so I got him. Even with the hero, Anurag and I are friends, who just happens to be a celebrity. I also brought down the budget of the film by not having stars. I didn’t want to waste money on stars, I’d rather pay my animators. Thankfully my producers agreed.
Animated films are yet to be accepted in mainstream Indian cinema. Why do you think that is?
How many Indian animation films have even been made? Very few. If you were to see the first 10 live-action films that were made, you couldn’t even call it an industry. You call it an industry when 400-500 films are made. That chance was never given to animation. However, 400-500 Disney films, Pixar films have come in and made a business. So the understanding of animation for people has been these films which are essentially children’s films. None of the non-children’s animated films which have been made in Europe have ever come into theatres in India. Your access is only to blockbuster children’s films from outside this country. Their business is good and no-one wants to put money into Indian animation because it’s easier to dub Hollywood films and make money from that. So, people quickly give up.
So, you don’t feel it’s the audiences who aren’t receptive to it?
If you give audiences 20 films and then you tell me they’re not receptive, I’ll agree. But you’ve given them nothing. They don’t even know what Indian animation is. And then people say, ‘they’re not receptive to it’.
Do you hope that a platform like Venice can help change that and encourage more films like this from India?
That’s a given, there’s no question about it. What we would like to see is whether the audience will come and watch the film in the theatres. Then the mathematics will work, and the industry will do its job and we can make the next one. Critical acclaim I’ve had lots of. It’s of no use to anyone except self-esteem and all that. But if I want my producers to support animation and my next film, then the mathematics have to work for them.
What does animation give you as a filmmaker that you wouldn’t be able to get from a live-action film? Is it the ability to create your own world?
Yes, and more than that it’s been my medium. I was always somebody who drew and painted to express myself. And it extended in terms of cinema also. I realised in animation, you can draw and paint your images, you don’t have to shoot. Acting is also something I love doing and I realised with animation, I can make them act. I can shoot them in spaces you wouldn’t be permitted to shoot in. Also, my characters go from reality to dream which can never be done in live-action. So that really keeps me hooked onto animation, that my drawings can take people through emotions and feelings from one to the other. I did one short live-action Chai and I found it very easy.
Any plans to return to acting after October?
If I get a good role, then yes. I did get some offers after October, but I was so busy with Bombay Rose I had to say no to them. But between this and my next film, I should get time.