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Packing an impressively varied résumé that includes not just acting in live-action Bollywood pictures, but also directing, animating and editing her own self-written shorts, Mumbai-based multihyphenate Gitanjali Rao makes her feature debut with Bombay Rose, the opening film for Venice’s Critics’ Week sidebar this year. Painstakingly painted by hand — although its hyper-fluidity indicates some CGI assistance to smooth out movements and in-between frames — this lushly colored work presents several intersecting stories about regular Mumbai folk whose paths cross in the teeming city’s streets.
As with Rao’s acclaimed short Printed Rainbow, which played in Cannes’ Critics’ Week, the writer-director glides back and forth between characters’ lapidary daydreams and their grittier, everyday reality, deploying subtle stylistic changes to underscore the difference. The final product is clearly fashioned to travel on the festival circuit and will no doubt go far there, but even though it touches on painful subjects such as forced marriage, the taboo against Hindu-Muslim relationships and the economic exploitation of children, this is no poverty-porn wallow in Third World misfortune made exclusively for the West. Instead, 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.
Pretty working-class girl Kamala (Cyli Khare, who also sings her own songs here) makes flower garlands to sell on the streets by day, and at night works as a “dancer” (perhaps more of a prostitute) in a nightclub, work she keeps schtum about in the neighborhood. Her earnings and those of her grandfather (Virendra Saxena), a watchmaker, are enough to pay for schooling for her little sister Tara (Gargi Shitole). Kamala hopes to keep Tara away from the kind of life she leads, especially since Kamala seems fated to marry brutal gangster Mike (Makarand Deshpande). A chaste flirtation with Salim (Amit Deondi), the Muslim youth from across the street, may offer a way out. However, Salim is freighted with his own troubled backstory, having survived the civil war in Kashmir.
Meanwhile, Tara takes English lessons from kindly aging film star Mrs. D’Souza (Amardeep Jha), who only half lives in the present, haunted as she is by memories of her glory days and a lost love long gone. In between reveries about the old days, sometimes shown in the monochrome palette of the silver screen heyday, Mrs. D’Souza teaches about the finer shades of difference, literally, between carmine and scarlet and the like in the world around them. Many of the scenes related to this character are backed by what sound like old 78 rpm oldies in Hindi, swinging jazz numbers that are a consistent pleasure to listen to, as is the sequence set to, perhaps a bit bizarrely, Brazilian pop star Caetano Veloso’s hit song “Cucurrucucú paloma” — that purring, caressing tune that also cropped up in Pedro Almodovar’s Talk to Her and a few other films.
Although Rao uses flowers as a linking device to draw the stories together, the narrative remains a bit on the scrappy side and not entirely resolved. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and the fragmentary vibe goes with the oneiric, fantastical parts of the story. Likewise, the naive, cartoonish look of the figures, with their deliberately limited movements, enhances the folk art feel overall. Yet at the same time, there is a palpable sense that this was made by someone who knows Mumbai backwards and truly loves its ochre-colored streets, cluttered sidewalks and peeling billboards advertising old movie releases, right down to every frayed shred of paper.
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Critics’ Week)
Production: A Cinestaan Film Company/Les Films d’Ici production
Cast: Cyli Khare, Amit Deondi, Gargi Shitole, Makrand Deshpande
Director-screenwriter: Gitanjali Rao
Producers: Rohit Khattar, Anand Mahindra
Executive producers: Deborah Sathe, Tessa Inkelaar
Co-producers: Charlotte Uzu, Serge Lalou
Animator: Gitanjali Rao
Editor: Gitanjali Rao
Production designer: Rupali Gatti
Music: Swanand Kirkire, Cyli Khare
Sales: C International Sales
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