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Star-Crossed Lovers on the Secular Streets of Mumbai: Gitanjali Rao on her film Bombay Rose

By Pahull Bains

Back in 2013 when Gitanjali Rao first began working on Bombay Rose, her debut feature-length animated film, she didn't consider its central romance to be particularly noteworthy or controversial. But a lot has changed since then. In the film, which screened at the Venice and Toronto Film Festivals last September and lands on Netflix globally this month, the two protagonists who fall in love are named Kamala and Salim. (That should tell you everything you need to know about why their romance might be considered controversial.)

Set in Mumbai, the film weaves together multiple narratives to offer a snapshot of ordinary life in the crowded, bustling city. At the centre of it all is the love story between Kamala, who works as a flower seller by day and bar dancer by night to support her family, and Salim, an unemployed young man who moved to the city from Kashmir after his parents were killed. Other characters in the film include Mike, a pimp whose constant threats Kamala is forced to live by; an orphaned deaf child whom Kamala's sister Tara takes under her wing; and ageing film star Mrs D’Souza, who tutors Tara in English.

“Somebody noticed that the film has Hindu, Muslim and Christian characters,” says Rao, who wrote and directed the film. “It didn't strike me because that's the speciality of living in Bombay. You tell the story of four people and they might turn out to be from different religions coincidentally.”

Each frame of the 90-minute film was painstakingly hand-painted by a team of animators in Mumbai under Rao's guidance, who insisted that they portray India’s financial capital exactly as it is, warts and all.

“I said, ‘I want the puddles, I want the dirt,’” laughs Rao. The result is a vibrant film that’s awash in rich, saturated shades of orange and red when depicting romance and fantasy, and turns to stark monochrome and neon lights when depicting the harsh reality of life on the streets. “It's a cruel city. It’s not easy to live here, so the ones who do should be celebrated.”

In addition to the star-crossed lovers narrative, the film also addresses poverty, corruption, lack of opportunity, and the plight of migrant workers in big cities. While the purpose of the film was simply to paint a picture of life in Maximum City, its socio-political subtext makes it remarkably poignant given the current climate. Five Indian states are in the process of drafting anti-conversion laws aimed at curbing interfaith marriages, and there have been recent outcries in the country over two fictional Hindu-Muslim romances, one shown in a Tanishq ad and the other in A Suitable Boy, the BBC adaptation of Vikram Seth's novel that's currently streaming on Netflix India. We spoke to Rao about the political undertones of Bombay Rose, the secularism that makes Mumbai special, and more.

What story did you set out to tell with this film?

For me, it was about giving a glimpse into life in Bombay when you're stuck in a traffic jam and you're watching life happen around you. There are these young boys selling flowers and young girls, and they're flirting. Their homes are right there. This is very particular to Bombay. I wanted to tell the story of these people in a way that shows the problems they face, the realities they face. They are building the city but they're migrants; they're exploited, they're not given their due, they can't exercise their franchise in voting in the state that they work in. All those things are very interlinked. To have a love story between these people, invariably where they live and the difficulties that they face becomes a part of the story. I didn't want it to be a sad story showing the slums. The richness comes from the way people think and their dreams. The film shows people fighting against systems, but the system overwhelms them. The actual villain in my film is the system. It's not really individuals.

In many ways, the film is an ode to Bombay, and it’s also a story of resilience. Tell me about that.

I'm a two-generation migrant. My grandparents migrated to Bombay; one from Karnataka, one from Gujarat. I couldn't be more born and brought up in Bombay. It’s the only city I've known and I've known it quite well. So yes it's an ode, but like with a lover, you might give an ode but you also want to point out his shortcomings and biases, you want to critique him. You have to see the whole. And the resilience, yes, that’s something the city teaches just about each and every person. It makes heroes out of people. A lot of people cannot survive in Bombay. It's a cruel city. It's not easy to live here. So the ones who do should be celebrated. To survive the city is quite a feat.

There’s a Hindu-Muslim love story at the heart of the film. What was behind the decision to have an inter-faith romance between the two lead characters? That was a conscious choice. I started thinking of the story way back in 2013 when there was no ‘love jihad’ stuff happening. So I wasn’t consciously thinking of religions but for me, it was interesting because his character is from Kashmir so he's a Muslim and she's from Madhya Pradesh with a child marriage history, which happens among the Hindus. So I thought why not? Yes, for me, forbidden love is a far more interesting story. But it's not just the Hindu-Muslim part that keeps them away. It's the fact that she's got the responsibility of her entire family, it's the fact that he needs a job, there are so many other reasons. Religion plays a small part in love. In politics, it's one thing, but in love, I don't think religion or caste comes in the way.

As you said, the political landscape has changed dramatically since you first began working on the film in 2013. Given the recent furore over the Tanishq ad and over A Suitable Boy, how do you think the film will be perceived?

There's this Baz Bahadur and Roopmati story that happens in Mandu, which I always found beautiful. In the 17th century, there was a Muslim prince and he fell in love with the voice of a girl, who's a Hindu shepherdess, and marries her. She said she wouldn't eat until she could look at a river so he built a pavilion in a place from where she could see the river. It’s a very beautiful Hindu-Muslim love story that's transcended over the years. I was taking that and making this. But now with this ‘love jihad’ and all that... I feel we've moved backwards so much. I'm not going to pay attention to all that. Because for me making a film is a forward journey.

Are you anticipating any backlash?

I’m too unimportant. I'm not successful (laughs). Honestly. It's not an advantage to anybody to pull it down because I've not reached a place where I can be pulled down. So you can see the pattern—it’s always pulling down people who have reached a certain pedestal. And I haven't. It's not of profit, therefore I will be spared. And the film will be spared. It's simply that. Maybe when I become a successful director it'll have an effect. But right now who cares?

It was recently announced that streaming services are going to be coming under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. How do you think that’s going to affect the integrity of storytelling going forward?

All our freedoms are being taken away from us. All of them. This is the last one and it's being taken away. I'm not even thinking of it because it's very depressing. If it happens then we'll protest. We’ll see what the OTTs [over-the-top streaming services] do. Of course, it will affect in a big sense the freedom. The thought that you are being monitored throughout is going to hurt. Because that's what's happened to the media. And it's just going to go downwards.

But then we'll find a way out of it also. Like we've always done.

Watch the trailer for Bombay Rose here:


About the author

Pahull Bains is the Culture & Lifestyle Editor at FASHION Magazine in Toronto, and a Contributing Editor at Vogue India. She has a Master's degree in Magazine Journalism from Columbia University and has been covering film, art, fashion, music and culture for over eight years. Born and raised in Chandigarh, she lived in New York and Mumbai before moving to Toronto.

The stills have been taken from the film Bombay Rose.


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