Gitanjali Rao is the very epitome of an auteur. A woman with a ferocious vision of the world of Bombay, or Mumbai. One that lends us the viewers her eyes and insights into a city that is altogether terrifying and tragic, and yet surreal and magical. Unlike the polished and sanitised cardboard worlds that Disney tries to paint in poor lip-service to reality, “Bombay Rose” accomplishes what it sets out to do. Achieving a magical realism that rivals any book or painting set within the genre. Right but we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Like the amateur art critics we are, we invite you to walk with us through Rao’s uncompromising gallery of Bombay. One that demands your gaze, if not your adoration.
First thing to note is that “Bombay Rose” is very much a slice-of-life film. The film does have a central plot per se but it’s not as assertive as the ones you may find in other animated films. Much like the works of Makoto Shinkai, Rao’s film takes its time to set up its world. Occupying every detail with stunning life and beauty. One may even say, she allows it to simply bloom before our very eyes. The film mainly revolves around the life and times of two sisters: Kamala and Tara. Two desperate souls trying to forge a new life for themselves amidst the hustle and bustle of the city of Mumbai.
Where things get interesting is when we see how their visions of the world diverge. Kamala, the eldest of the two, is a product of tradition and the stories of old. This conservative view is typified in her daydreams. As she sells flowers on the streets, she encounters a cast of colourful characters who take the shape and form of Indian mythology. For example, when she first meets Salim, a handsome but poor northerner, she begins to fantasise about him. He is transformed into a fine prince dressed in linens and silk. She longs for nothing more than to be enraptured in the romances of folklore, if not embroiled in the melodrama of Bollywood.
Her sister Tara though, her world could not be farther from her sister’s. Unlike Kamala who must sacrifice her development for Tara, she is allowed to flourish. She attends a colonial school called St. Andrews, and she has private lessons with an English teacher named Shirley D’souza. Together with Ms D’Souza, they view the world through the streets of Bombay in light of English occupation. A town steeped in quaint manners, Anglo-Saxon sensibilities with all the wit and repartee one may find in a Jane Austen novel. That being said, at no point does Rao lionise India’s colonial influence. Instead, she provides insights into how the well-to-do upper classes wear English society as a symbol of culture and power.
We all have our meta-narratives. Stories we imagine for ourselves in which we use to explain the world around us. Rao displays a deep and powerful understanding of how meta-narratives are entwined with our class position and lived experiences. It even begins to influence our relationships and how we present ourselves. Kamala’s world is one created by patriarchal influences. She cannot dream of one beyond this structure and therefore can only picture a fantasy that is informed by it. Tara walks a different path with a far more progressive image of the world. Eventually, the two clash with Kamala’s more cynical and orthodox way of life battling against Tara’s hopeful idealism. Ultimately they two learn to reconcile their differing views on reality.
Through the medium of animation, Rao depicts these two separate views on life in Bombay with magnificent visual flair and breath-taking clarity. The film is brought to life by 60 artists and animators, all tied by Rao’s unique artistic direction. “Bombay Rose” seamlessly transitions from the gritty earthen colours and sights of the streets into the bright and vibrant shades of a royal tapestry of Kamala’s eye. One where every shade is more pronounced and the fantastical becomes possible. There were moments in which we had to pause the film to drink in everything we saw. The landscape of Tara’s world shifts and changes into the old postcards and sketches of the idyllic European towns. Completed with lined rail cars and Mary Poppins like mentors to show her the ropes.
While we wholeheartedly loved “Bombay Rose”, we should prime potential viewers to come into the film with an open mind. Admittedly, the film’s plot can be a tad slow at times. So if you’re expecting to sit down with your kids to have a fun, chill cartoon session you may find Rao’s film a difficult watch. Amidst the adventures of Kamala and Tara, there are lots of adult themes that will require unpacking. Especially when we learn of Kamala’s second job outside of the flower-selling business. Even the seemingly silly adventures of a mute and deaf boy evading escape from the police is mired in a troubling reality. One that forces you to choose between education and starvation.
The soundtrack to the film is also absolutely phenomenal. Inspired by a number of different influences, the score flirts with everything from sombre sitars to rhythmic bongos to Bollywood grooves. The most memorable theme for us was a beautiful song sung in Hindi about the life-giving Maa Rewa river. A melancholic ballad signaling the glory days of yore. Before modernity and colonialism swallowed Bombay in a sea of poverty and ruin. A myth that persists in the hearts of those who believe.
Gitanjali Rao’s “Bombay Rose” delivers one of the best animated films of 2021. Period. Alongside a talented team of creators and artists, she clutches us by the hand to lead through narrow slums, royal palaces and rose gardens. Populated with people and stories that are as real as us and yet far more magical and dangerous. If you’re a hardcore cinephile looking hungry for a great foreign-language film, then this is for you. For the love of cinema, go watch “Bombay Rose” on your Netflix account right now!
If you love animated films as much as we do, be sure to check out our thoughts on Disney’s “Raya and the Last Dragon”. Also, do you know any hidden animated gems? Let us know in the comments down below!
Netflix's Bombay Rose Review
Gitanjali Rao’s “Bombay Rose” delivers one of the best animated films of 2021. Period. Alongside a talented team of creators and artists, she clutches us by the hand to lead us through narrow slums, royal palaces and rose gardens. Populated with people and stories that are as real as us and yet far more magical and dangerous.
- Netflix's Bombay Rose Review