Gitanjali Rao on India premiere of her film Bombay Rose at MAMI 2019: Feels like bringing a man home to your parents
Filmmaker Gitanjali Rao talks about bringing Bombay Rose home at MAMI, choosing animation as her preferred language of storytelling, and why she hasn't acted after October.
Gitanjali Rao's feature film debut Bombay Rose, in hand-painted animation format, will finally have its Indian premiere at the ongoing Jio MAMI 21st Mumbai Film Festival. After making huge waves at Venice International Film Festival, Toronto International Film Festival, Busan Film Festival, and BFI London Film Festival, Bombay Rose is now making inroads into home ground.
"When the film is screening at MAMI, it's also in Chicago, Los Angeles, and Dallas. I'm happily not going anywhere because MAMI is the most important. It's like you fall in love with a man, and you bring him home to your mother and father, as opposed to introducing him to your friends circle. Totally different scene! Wo sab ho gaya mera (I am done with all that). So I'm nervous but also very excited. Also, I can watch the films of my peer group since I'm done with the primary sales in other parts of the world. I haven't attended MAMI for the last couple of years since I was too busy making my film. I've been on the jury but never had my film in competition. I didn't have any of my short films in competition either because they didn't have a short films section, which they do now (Dimensions)," says Gitanjali, at her residence in Goregaon, Mumbai.
We sip piping hot tea as she confesses she has a bad throat because of promoting and pitching her films all over the globe, most recently London, from where she returned only that morning. But she does hint that the producers are closing in on a theatrical release date in India. "We haven't sealed any deals but we're working towards it. There're a bunch of fall festivals all over the world where we've strategically placed our film. MAMI will play a huge role since it's home ground. I want to see how people react to it here."
Bombay Rose, as the title suggests, is a story set in Mumbai, and also harks back to 1960s, when Bombay (as it was called then) was a more pluralistic society, according to Gitanjali. "One period is of 2005, when dance bars were shut down by the moral policing of the government, and what it did to the women employed there. They were forgotten. Society was very happy those dance bars were gone but these women had a raw deal. They're still fighting the court case. Then it talks about when child labour was banned. Children below the age of 14 were not allowed to work, but they weren't given any alternative. Juvenile homes were far worse in terms of criminality than working outside. So when governments take those calls, the aftermath is not pursued even by the press. Having lived through those times, these instances stayed with me."
However, Geetanjali's framework, as mentioned earlier, is not limited to 2005 but also extends to 1960s. "There's a 70-year-old woman in the film. She used to be a dancer back in the 1950s and '60s, when black and white movies used to exist. Again, it's a part of Bombay which was say, in Guru Dutt's films. There'll be a generation now, which would watch an animation film, but wouldn't have watched a Guru Dutt film. So it's bringing back of what Bombay used to be, before the Babri Masjid fell, before dance bars were closed down, before Bollywood became a phenomenon from the Hindi film industry. We were multicultural, more tolerant, and happier with our varied lifestyles. This is now disappearing from society today."
Bombay Rose is essentially about two people from low classes of society, who reside in Mumbai slums. Gitanjali claims while those living in high-rise buildings cannot imagine the life these people have, she has always tried to bridge the gap through her keen observations. "You just spend a day in the BEST bus. I used to do a lot of that in college. My college was JJ School of Arts (in South Bombay), and I lived in Borivali. The only way you could spend time without spending money, and if it's raining, was to get into a BEST bus, and look at the city, absorbing a lot. As artist, you're taught to observe life from a part of society that you don't belong to but is in your surroundings. So you end up going to VT station (Victoria Terminus, now Chhatrapati Maharaj Shivaji Terminus), and sketch the people there. Traveling in a train or a rickshaw, you can see mother-daughter relationship in a slum, and you could see it spill off. When I went to Delhi, I found these parts of society so isolated. The poor were kept away from the rich. Bombay becomes more beautiful because you can't stay away from each other parts. If you observe, you'll live a better life with your service providers. In other parts of the world, there's no servant or watchman. Here, these guys make your buildings but they aren't allowed to even use the lift. Everybody has a choice. But you choose to keep your eyes closed. We should not, and we should also teach our children how privileged they are. Only when you acknowledge this difference, will you be able to get into the heads of these people."
The film, since it is set in Mumbai, has an inextricable link to Bollywood. In his review, veteran film critic Baradwaj Rangan says Bombay Rose pays a tribute to Bollywood but also subverts certain traits of the same. Gitanjali explains, "I have a co-protagonist, the man, who's from Kashmir, whose life has been affected by insurgency. He, like all men on the streets, is influenced by Bollywood's escapism. So he moves to Mumbai. Through him, I go into the theatres, and give a gaze of what Bollywood is right now: it's full of toxic masculinity. If you watch Guru Dutt films, women were important characters. But in the 1980s, Bollywood took a slump, and men and women's depiction has been the same since. So in the film, when the man tries to emulate what he sees on screen in his life, he fails. Because there's nobody to tell him that this doesn't happen in real life. You and I will be told that, not people who are vulnerable. In the beginning, it seems like I'm paying a tribute but by the end, it's an ironic take."
Clearly, there is a lot of subtext embedded in Bombay Rose. But the only piece of criticism from the Western reviewers is that the film, despite its impeccable craft, is devoid of an effective story. Gitanjali has a response ready, "These are essentially Western critics. My story is of two very normal people, in whose life nothing extraordinary can happen. If I do insert a great event, it undermines the story of two underprivileged people. The complex stories they live with can't have a beginning, middle, and end, like a simplified graph that animated films like Disney/Pixar have. My story is more from the school of Indian or Japanese cinema, where there are layers with a lot of detailing. It's almost like weaving a gajra. There's an intentional mundaneness in the story. People feel let down by that. Going back and forth, and looping the story to the beginning isn't a Western phenomenon. So I wouldn't defend it. But yes, it's also a perception. As Baradwaj Rangan said, if you're looking for a story in a Kanjivaram sari, you won't find one. But if you look at how beautifully intricate the detail is, you'll be charmed. Since my design is so ornamental, had I made my story also detailed, it would've been too much to pack in. Had I gone ahead with it, I would've gone in a realm where my story would've gotten compromised. My story, I'd say, is not a graph but in concentric circles. Conventional storytelling doesn't entail that."
Hand-painted animation was a format that came to Gitanjali organically, she claims. "I only do that. It's the language I choose to express my art. Bombay Rose was a story which I conceived nine years ago. By the time it developed, I was sure it has to be in animation. I feel people often shy away from showing people as they are in animation. It's not a popular format to tell the story of two migrants, and the issues and politics they bring along. But I think it's a great format since you can say harsh truths but with the aesthetic of a painting. So if the audience wants to shut off and just appreciate the painting, they can. Otherwise it also gives you a lot to think about."
Gitanjali confesses working on a feature film was a whole new beast than working on a short film. "Working on a short film was isolated, lonely, and long-drawn but all the decisions were left to me to take. But in a feature film, I had to manage people. Managing artists and the studio (Paperboat Animation) was easy but to manage the egos of the producers was challenging. I had to bring all of them to a point they see eye to eye. I also had to sell my soul in the market but I grew along with the process. With the momentum I now have, I can't wait to dive into my next feature film, and do it all over again, though in a shorter span of time."
Apart from filmmaking, Gitanjali is also an actor by hobby. She was seen as Shiuli's mother in Shoojit Sircar's October last year. "That happened because Shoojit saw me acting on stage 15 years ago. He had some animation queries recently, and while talking to me, it struck him I could play this part. Since I was waiting for my film to take off, I accepted the role. I just thought if it's a creative risk Shoojit is willing to take, I don't mind going ahead. But by the time it started rolling, my deal got finalised. Devoting time there would eat into my pre-production but since I'd committed to it, I didn't want to back off then. When Juhi (Chaturvedi, writer) saw me act, she liked it, and wrote even a longer role for me. But it was fun since I liked the script. I got a lot of offers after the film but I had to say no because I was too busy making my film. I'm still open to acting, if it's a fun role, a good director, and a decent script," she says.
All images from Twitter.
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