When writer/director Gitanjali Rao set out to make her debut feature, Bombay Rose, she introduced a large team of artists into her own idiosyncratic process for the first time. The challenge, in doing so, was to preserve the singular aesthetic that she’d refined over the course of decades, still hitting on the sense of intimacy that one feels, in viewing a film made by just one person.
A visionary who burst onto the world stage in 2006 with her Cannes-premiering short Printed Rainbow, Rao didn’t have to wait long for Hollywood to come knocking. “It was easy for me to hop onto films, which were made in the conventional style of either 2D or 3D animation,” she says. “But I resisted that.”
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What truly interested her was the idea of bringing a feature to life in the style of her award-winning shorts—a vibrant, hand-painted work crafted meticulously, frame by frame.
Because she stuck to her instincts as an artist, and to the subjects that interested her, Rao would have to wait many years to bring a feature into the world. “It could have paid off, it couldn’t have,” she says, “but it did.”
Premiering as part of the Venice Film Festival’s International Critics Week in 2019, Bombay Rose is scheduled to hit Netflix on March 8. Meditating on the influence of Bollywood films and on the chaotic beauty of Bombay, the film centers on Kamala (Cyli Khare), a young Hindu woman enduring a difficult existence, as a flower seller and nightclub dancer, who strikes up the romance of a lifetime with a man named Salim (Amit Deondi).
Below, the director expounds on the inspirations behind her gorgeous feature, and the “practical and experimental” pipeline, which allowed her to bring it to fruition.
DEADLINE: What inspired Bombay Rose? And how did the film come about?
GITANJALI RAO: I had been working on these characters of the young girl and boy for quite a long time, over two other films. Those films didn’t finish, but the characters remained with me, and their story changed. The girl always came from Central India, and the boy came from Kashmir, as migrants to a city in Bombay, but what happens to them was something that kept changing with the films.
Finally, when I reached the stage for Bombay Rose, the reason these characters interested me was, I would encounter these kinds of young people selling flowers all the time in Bombay. When you’re stuck in a traffic jam for hours, because the city is so crowded, you see these boys and girls that sell flowers. I love to wear flowers or buy flowers, and I would sometimes notice a little bit of flirtation, and things like that blossoming between them.
So, it got me interested in finding out who they are, where they come from, how they live, how they get influenced, how they court each other. And Bollywood is a big influence for people who live on the streets, for people who work in factories, for the masses and, of course, the elite class, also. So, the influence of what a man is, what machismo is, what patriarchy is, through Bollywood, seemed to me a very interesting story, from the point of view of the consumer; of the people who live on the streets in a city like Bombay, and are influenced by Bollywood, and how it transpires.
Then, of course, there were more characters, which I wanted to tell stories about—about actors who had been the side heroes in the 1950s, ’60s. So basically, it came out to be a story of people who are not heroes, but they’re simply surviving their reality, which is quite difficult. I found a way to tell a story about people who just survive, and the survival makes heroes out of them, and that’s where the story evolved into a bunch of stories, coming together through a rose.
DEADLINE: What informed the film’s visual style? Were there particular inspirations behind it?
RAO: Being essentially a painter who also animates and directs films, I think visually. For me, the stories of these characters were interesting because I had started working on my own style of animation, which is painted frame by frame—and in that, what I like to do is to take a traditional or folk art style, and set a story in that style, so that I can go from one art style, which is reality, into another, which can be based on Persian miniatures, or the street art that you see on the walls in India.
So, the fascination of wanting to move this still art and make it animation is how I approach stories. My characters belong to a place where this traditional art is flourishing, and they come to a place like Bombay, so it would give me a way to have an art style for Bombay, and to explore all these other styles by going into their dreamscapes.
That’s how the story of the various characters evolved, like the old woman. I wanted to touch the black-and-white noir films as a style, which is no longer made, but you can do it in animation. So, I would have a character through whom I can tell a story, which is set in that period, and bring to life in animation [that] which otherwise is impossible to do in live-action. So, the art styles really dictate my stories, even now.
DEADLINE: How did you think about the way in which you would use color to tell this story?
RAO: Color is something I do very intuitively as a painter, and the beauty of a place like India, or a city like Bombay is, it’s a riot of colors. When you try to shoot a live-action film, you get a riot of colors, whereas I have the advantage in animation to take a riot of colors, as it is, and to give it a color scheme. That is something, also, which interests me, and I had a wonderful coloring artist helping me with it.
The moment you paint scenery, your aesthetics of color come into it, and yet we wanted to be faithful to what Bombay is. We tended to give it a golden glow in the evening, a nice bluish feel in the mornings, which is very unique to a city. It’s not the pure atmosphere and air that you see in the countryside. This is full of pollution, full of traffic. To find a balance between the colors was very challenging, and something I loved doing a lot.
With the other graphic styles, which I borrowed for the dreamscapes, I stayed very faithful to the color schemes that are used in that style. So, in the miniature paintings, you have very warm colors. There is not much light and shadow; the palette was very monochromatic and toned down, with the richness of gold. The other style, which was the boy’s chalk painting style, those are very vibrant colors. The brushstrokes are very rough, so I would use those colors and I would use those brush styles.
So, more than coming up with a color scheme, I just stayed very true to the color scheme of these art styles, which have been figured out by others for us.
DEADLINE: What kind of pipeline was employed to bring the film to life?
RAO: My process, because I animate my films myself, is a very personal style of doing it. It’s like following the traditional paint-on-glass technique, where you have a camera and a glass sheet. You paint, you take a frame, and then you change the painting and take the next frame. That is something I could do myself, in my style. I have perfected it over the years, but for a team of people to translate it, we did it very differently.
I would never find 10 people like myself, doing exactly the same thing that I do. That’s impossible. So, to break it down for the pipeline, my animation studio came up with a very practical and experimental idea.
They broke down my process into three processes. One is line drawing, because there are a lot of great, talented [animators that] can do line drawings, but cannot paint. Then, you have another group of people that know animation, that may not be experts. That got divided into light and shade, in black and white. And then, you have a third set of people who are artists, or fresh graduates from art schools, who could paint on Photoshop.
So, I would do one frame of a shot, and then it would be taken by these three groups of people. The animators would do the line drawings, which I would correct sometimes, [until] they understood the style and were on their own. Then, it would go to the next set of people, who would simply divide it into what would be in shadow, and what would be in light. Then, the third group of people—who don’t understand animation, necessarily—would simply have the patience of painting each frame as a layer on Photoshop.
When these three stages are composited together and you play it in the timeline, it resembled the animation that I do intuitively. It was a long process, but it was very nicely [achieved]. It was unlike the convention of animation in-betweens, and then ink and paint. We chose the difficult way, and it worked. Finally, the film looks entirely like it’s done by one person.
DEADLINE: Is it true that it took you six years to complete the film?
RAO: Six years, four of which was spent in finding the finance, and that’s where I did the entire development. I wrote the script, I did the animatics, and once we found the finance for the film, which was a co-production between France and India, it took a long time to get the co-production deal together. That’s where I finalized my development completely.
So, the day we signed the deal, we actually took only 21 months to execute the film. But that was the last part. Because I had managed to prepare everybody, the teams were all on standby. We were all ready, and just waiting for the contracts to go. So, the total amount of time was six years, but very disproportionately. It’s like four years finding the finance, and less than two years making the film, whereas I would have loved it to be the other way around.
DEADLINE: What were the biggest challenges in mounting your first feature?
RAO: Everything was a challenge. The fact that we got the finance for the film was the biggest challenge, and having done that, the execution has to become something that is simpler. So, no part of the execution was challenging enough for me to be worried that this film will not see the light of day. I had worked on two films, which didn’t finish, so I learned my lessons from that, and I knew that once I have a team in place, we will be able to execute it. [But] it was very difficult because it was a lot of detailed, painted work to be done in a very short time.
We hit a strange situation somewhere in the middle of the 18 months that we had in production, where we were doing everything very happily, very beautifully. Everything was looking very nice, except we had done only 10% of what we were supposed to do [by at point in time]. And that was like a slap. Everybody woke up, we got the entire team together, and figured out a way where the quality remains the same, but everybody works a little more to reach that. The second half then, we managed to complete. But at that point, it was almost like the producer said, “We have to stop the film, because it’s not going to complete [on time].”
So, the challenges were the same as happens in every production, but we overcame it not with money. We overcame it with the lack of [money and other resources], but with dedication and love and passion for the film.
DEADLINE: What’s next for you? Do you have another feature in the works?
RAO: I had a feature and was hoping to develop it, but the pandemic has [imposed new challenges]. So, I spent six months making a short film instead, because it’s easier for me to be working with my hands than to do that. Now, there’s definitely a [feature] idea. I just have to get my hands and my mind down to it—and my writer, to start writing.
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