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VENICE 2019 International Film Critics’ Week

Review: Bombay Rose

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- VENICE 2019: Gitanjali Rao's daring animation from India about forbidden love has opened the International Film Critics’ Week

Review: Bombay Rose

It is the animation technique that is the knockout in Gitanjali Rao's Bombay Rose [+see also:
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, the opening film of the International Film Critics’ Week at the Venice Film Festival. In a throwback to a pre-digital age (it now seems like that analogue era was when the dinosaurs roamed the Earth), every single frame of her debut feature is hand-painted.

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The style of the animation even changes depending on the era or location depicted in the movie. For instance, on the cinema screens where Bollywood movies play to raucous spectators, the on-screen heroes have a bulky, masculine quality. It's easy to imagine that this is how Otto Dix would draw graphic novels. There is a bold, free-flowing style with lots of orange and red used when showing the streets of Bombay in the present day. Most strikingly, when the film goes back to yesteryear, the colour drains to black and white, and the buildings fall off the screen as if a child is pulling stickers from a montage. No wonder it took the director six years to make.

Impressively, Rao is a self-taught animator and filmmaker, who emerged on the international stage when her animated short Printed Rainbow premiered in the Cannes Critics’ Week in 2006. Printed Rainbow would go on to be shortlisted for an Oscar in 2008.

Unfortunately, the narrative that accompanies the lush images is not so impressive. Bombay Rose feels incomplete, even after six years of effort. Perhaps that is inevitable in a film that uses a red rose to connect three stories of forbidden love in the vibrant, bustling city. That being said, Rao should be commended for taking on big themes: the love between a Hindu and a Muslim, the love between two women, and the love of a city towards its cinema. It's the latter that Rao is most dismissive of: the film questions whether cinema can really provide an escape from the dark realities of oppression. In a rather impressive sequence, the screen heroes break the fourth wall, but can they actually perform miracles in real life? These scenes are welcome pockets of delight in a narrative that lacks the complexity displayed in the characters’ lives.

What is more successful is the cleverness with which Rao has created a paean to Bombay. She doesn't paint the world with rose petals but instead wants to unveil all the thorns. There are religious bigots, hoodlums and con artists all buzzing around the market where a former exotic dancer, Kamala (voiced by Cyli Khare), works. A young Muslim man from Kashmir, Samil (Amit Deondi), is fascinated by Kamala and tries to woo her. This story of a love crushed by a religious divide is the strongest of the three narratives. There is also heavy use of extended song sequences, with lyrics provided by Swanand Kirkire. If anything, the film's fault is that it has too many ideas, which, as failures go, is entirely pardonable.

Bombay Rose is a UK-Indian-French-Qatari production staged by Cinestaan Film Company, and co-produced by Les Films d'Ici and Goldfinch Entertainment. Its producers are Rohit Khattar and Anand Mahindra, with Charlotte Uzu and Serge Lalou serving as co-producers. It was executive-produced by Deborah Sathe and Tessa Inkelaar.

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