Despite India being home to a robust film industry, local animation features still face an uphill battle in gaining wider acceptance, much as domestic animation content thrives on television.
In this scenario, Gitanjali Rao is among the rare filmmakers who has carved an identity with her unique visual style starting with 2006's Printed Rainbow, which bowed at Cannes and went on to win three awards there, including for best short.
She returned to the Croisette with her 2014 short True Love Story, which formed the basis for her debut feature, Bombay Rose.
Rao's films are painted frame by frame, which lend them a distinct look which reflect elements of Indian folk art. "It's like hand embroidery as opposed to machine-made clothes," the filmmaker tells The Hollywood Reporter, adding, "Hand-painted animation is like a painting which has a longer life. In fact, some Oscar-nominated films have been hand-painted, such as Persopolis and Waltz With Bashir."
As the first Indian animation feature to open the Venice International Film Festival's Critic’s Week, Bombay Rose has traveled to Toronto, London and Busan, among other fests, while garnering critical acclaim, ahead of its India premiere at the Mumbai Film Festival.
Reviewing the film at Venice, THR's Leslie Felperin wrote, "Rao demonstrates a lightness of touch and a very Bollywood knack for melodrama and entertainment that should make the work appealing to both domestic and international audiences as a niche release."
The Mumbai-set pic revolves around the inter-faith love between working-class Hindu girl Kamala, who makes flower garlands to sell on the streets, and Salim, a Muslim youth.
Rao calls Bombay Rose "an ironical tribute" to Bollywood, "in that it takes a lot from Bollywood in terms of how it influences the migrant youth in love, but it's not a tribute with a happy ending — because the opposite happens. The film criticizes the patriarchial mindset prevalent in Indian society."
A parallel story about an old woman also tips a hat to one of Indian cinema's iconic figures, the late Guru Dutt, who flourished in the 1950s and '60s "when Indian cinema was not termed 'Bollywood.'"
Bombay Rose was produced by India- and U.K.-based Cinestaan Film Company, backed by leading Indian industrialist Anand Mahindra, along with veteran French banner Les Film d’Ici, whose credits include Waltz With Bashir. The animation was done at Mumbai-based PaperBoat Animation Studios, where a team of over 100 computer animators painted a million frames.
"The production involved 18 months of work and for a 93-minute film, it is quite a feat," sayd Rao, adding that India has "a huge talent pool in 2D animation, which is far better than in any other country because it's a very labor-intensive process."
India's tryst with animation features has had its fair share of attempts at cracking the market, with such titles as 2005's Hanuman, which revolved around the Hindu monkey god. Rao says that at the time, "many films were planned, but producers didn't back them because they were not used to waiting for three years for an animation film to get made."
Hopes were high when Disney ventured into Indian animation with its 2008 feature Roadside Romeo, which was co-produced with veteran Bollywood banner Yash Raj Films, but the pic was a critical and commercial disappointment, despite the voiceover talents of top stars Kareena Kapoor and Saif Ali Khan.
Rao also was in talks with Disney to work on an animated feature based on the Indian epic the Mahabharata, but the project didn't materialize. "Their focus was really on doing live-action films," says Rao, referring to how the studio began rolling out its Bollywood slate.
Still, there have been attempts at developing the animation features market with recent films such as Shilpa Ranade's Goopi Gawaiya Bagha Bajaiya and Hanuman: Da’ Damdaar, which was voiced by superstar Salman Khan and directed by Ruchi Narain, though those films had to contend with limited distribution.
"If more films like these were made, then perhaps that would help change people's opinions about the potential for animation films," says Rao.
As Bombay Rose gets set for its "homecoming" in the city that inspired the movie, Rao says, "I hope Mumbai and other Indian festivals will give us a feeling of how we can take this forward in terms of assessing the film's theatrical potential."
As for anything brewing for the future, Rao says, "I have a story in mind, but I am still not putting it on paper. I will get down to it after the festival run of Bombay Rose."