Bombay Rose movie review: Gitanjali Rao's animated film is an arresting ode to the paradoxical chaos of Mumbai

Pradeep Menon
·5 min read

(This review was first published after the India premiere of Bombay Rose at the Jio MAMI 21st Mumbai Film Festival. It is being republished in view of the release of the film on Netflix India on 4 December.)


Language: Hindi

The day I cast my first vote in Bombay, I watched a film called Bombay Rose.

Bombay isn't a feeling, an emotion, or a bottomless barrel of spirit; it is but a montage. Snatches of conversation and fleeting frames that, if frozen in time, tell astonishing stories of love and loss, of success and failure, of dreams and nightmares.

Over decades - centuries perhaps - the city has been wrung dry in art, yet, it only takes a flash of inspiration or serendipity for yet another storyteller to spin a yarn and call it love. Yes, most Bombay stories are universal, because the city teems with people from all over, a microcosm of the ever-mutating condition of the human race, a place that about 20 million of us - insiders and outsiders of the 2011 census - call home.

After voting my entire adult life in Pune, the city of my birth, this year I finally managed to get registered on the electoral rolls of the only city that instantly embraced me in unconditional belonging. From my first visit here at the age of three, to moving here at 21 and every moment I've lived here since, Bombay is a city where the next story is only as far away as the next person you bump into, or the next corner you turn.

Acclaimed animated short film director Gitanjali Rao's Bombay Rose is an arresting ode to this paradoxical chaos of Bombay (or Mumbai, call it what you want). Lush animation lovingly rendered frame-by-frame is used to gently sew together a web of connecting stories that seem, at once, familiar and unusual at the same time.

Make no mistake, the stories themselves aren't revolutionary; yet so rich and textured is every hand-drawn frame, every painted shade, every meticulous shadow, that the overall experience is a waterfall of sensory nostalgia, with memories and melancholy plucked from the depths of the mind and sometimes even manufactured merely out of a connection with the city, not from real life.

The film acquaints us with characters such as Kamala - flower seller by day and bar dancer by night, and her younger sister Tara, both of them orphans who, years ago, fled to Mumbai with their grandfather. School-going Tara represents the bright, sparkling hope that Bombay offers, the older Kamala becoming the accepting cynic committed to responsibilities over flights of fancy. (Yet, when in Bombay, how can one not dream?)

Along the way, either one or both come across various other characters; the Bollywood-influenced unemployed Kashmiri youth Salim, haunted still by the horrors of life in his tumultuous hometown, who falls for Kamala; the old Catholic lady Ms Shirley D'Souzá who hasn't forgotten her lover even decades after fate separated them; the sharp little mute boy Tipu who is befriended by Tara and many more.

Also read: 'Feels like bringing a man home to your parents': Gitanjali Rao on Bombay Rose premiering at MAMI 2019

All of them play a part in creating the universe of the film that looks, feels, and in some cases, incredibly, even smells like Mumbai. Everyone who comes to Bombay arrives with baggage, metaphorical or literal; but once you live here, you aren't from Ayodhya or Madurai or Srinagar; you're from here. The film, thus, is ultimately just a collections of scenes, some minuscule and others elaborate, as life and its vagaries happen to the Bombay folk.

When I walked in to the cinema hall with my ink-stained index finger, thrilled that I'd just voted as a Mumbaikar for the first time, I wasn't expecting Bombay Rose to reignite my passionate love for this city. I've travelled all over the country, visiting nearly every state and many a Union Territory, but the joy of fleeing Bombay's hyper-entropy for work or travel is matched and exceeded only by the solace I feel when, like a homing pigeon, I invariably find my way back.

There is a caveat to this admittedly unhealthy romanticisation of the megapolis, for as the Common Man from another memorable Bombay film, Neeraj Pandey's A Wednesday, would say, "We are resilient by force, not by choice." Bombay isn't a hostile city, but it is an unforgiving one. For those who cannot afford the luxury of romanticism, it can even be a relentless assault on human dignity. It is them that the film attempts to discover in its stories, and like the city itself, the film is an unrelenting series of scenes, big and small, that highlight the toil of living here, for most.

If there's one area in the film which caused the illusion, of Bombay calling out to me from the inside, to break, it was the nature and quality of its sound design. The dialogues, themselves awkwardly written and rarely sounding like the way people normally speak, also have an obvious studio-recording feel to them that remind you that ultimately this is a film made completely indoors. The outdoors, then, are what infuse the film with life. From a pleasing folksy Goan song to a thumping Asha Bhosale Bollywood number (one of my personal favourites, no less), the music of the film helps gloss over its problems with sound design.

There have been numerous iconic Bombay films over the years €" Mira Nair's Salaam Bombay, Zafar Hai's The Perfect Murder, Mani Ratnam's Bombay, Ram Gopal Varma's Satya, and even this year's opening film at MAMI, Geetu Mohandas' Moothon, immediately come to mind. Yet, few films ever made have managed to capture a sliver of Bombay in every frame the way Bombay Rose does. Every stroke within is a tribute, every note of music a love song, every passing moment in it a chronicle of a time, place or memory that can only be described as indelible.

Rating: ****

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