Cannes: Animator Gitanjali Rao's Latest Film Is a Reaction to Bollywood (Q&A)

Courtesy: Gitanjali Rao
Gitanjali Rao

The award-winning filmmaker returns to Cannes with her latest short,"True Love Story," which screens in the Critics Week.

Carving her own niche in a country dominated by Bollywood and other mainstream cinema, Gitanjali Rao has garnered acclaim for her award-winning animation films. A fine arts graduate from Mumbai's prestigious Sir J. J. Institute of Applied Art, Rao is a self taught animator, filmmaker and theater artist.

Independently producing and directing her films, Rao's 2006 debut, Printed Rainbow premiered in the Cannes Critics Week where it  went on to win three awards including best short. She also has a string of award winning animated commercials to her credit. In addition, she has served in the jury at various festivals including the 2011 Cannes Critic's Week short films jury.

As she returns to the Croisette with her latest, True Love Story, Rao explained to The Hollywood Reporter how Bollywood inspired her film and elaborated on the challenges of being an animation filmmaker in India.

The animation genre in India is still finding its identity. How challenging is it to be an animation filmmaker in India?

I think we are living in one of the most interesting and most difficult times. Animation still lacks an identity in India, unlike live action films which are distinct, be it Bollywood or regional cinema. But then, animation is relatively very young in the country. One of the obvious things to do is to ape the West but that is not the answer. We have to start from nothing to establish our identity. There are people doing their own individual kind of animation and that is the need of the hour. There are lots of people trying to make films but sometimes those films never get completed due to financial constraints. Potential producers still don't want to put their money in animation, whether its for children or for adults. My films are not for children at all so it becomes really niche. I have given up looking for funding. But we hope that our movement will slowly reach somewhere. The money is there in the country.

How have you managed to produce your films?

I started out by funding my own short films and I still do that. At one point, I did get an opportunity to make a feature but the project fell through after six months of work (as the project's backers, independent production banner Phat Phish, went out of business). I also worked on a project for Walt Disney India for a year and a half. It was called Shadows of the Mahabharat, (a contemporary take on the Indian epic Mahabharat) which was aimed at kids while appealing to adults as well. I wrote the film and also did pre-production design and everything was approved. But it was pulled off because they said the finances didn't work.

How are the opportunities for animation in commercials since you have also worked in that area?

People think that my kind of high quality animation is very expensive -- which it is not -- or labor-intensive -- which it is. But I haven't had too many people approaching me. Advertising is about networking and when I sit and work on my own movies for over a year, I don't have much time to go out and network. Having said that, there are an increasing number of animators out there who are active in this area which is a good thing.

You are back in Cannes with your latest short, True Love Story. What is this about?

It is actually a reaction to Bollywood. If you are somebody poor and want to do something, Bollywood can crush you. So Bollywood is actually the villain in the story, in an ironical sense. It can be a treacherous industry. It is a reality check but by celebrating something, not by bringing it down. The excitement for me was to look at the irony. I want to seduce the audience because I want the people of the world to see why Bollywood is so seductive and at the same time, so treacherous. This is also a self-funded project which had the ambitions of being a feature. I managed to put the project together as an Indo-French co-production and also got some funding commitments. But for some reason, that also got delayed and I went back to making it as a short film.

What kind of challenges do you face as a woman filmmaker?

In artistic animation all over the world, the percentage of women versus men working in this genre is almost fifty per cent, unlike in the live action or documentary genres where it is probably about eight percent. Animation is also a physically different environment where you mostly spend time inside a studio. You also have to realize that mainstream Bollywood is really a very macho industry. Animation is a very young industry and the women working in this can define what they want to say. But I have never felt it tough to work in this genre as a woman. However, when it comes to financing, that is always a challenge for all animators.

How is it to be back at Cannes?

I was on the jury in the same category (in the 2011 Critics Week). It is nicer to be here in the competition than as a jury member. I have experienced both sides!