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A smiling Indian woman in red in Netflix’s Bombay Rose steps out of a bright golden hallway into a darker alcove Image: Netflix

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Netflix’s Bombay Rose wraps a haphazard story in gorgeous animation

Indian animation master Gitanjali Rao explores the sounds of Mumbai

Gitanjali Rao has been one of the premier voices of India’s fledgling animated scene, from gorgeous experimental shorts to telecom ad films that presaged the coming of the digital age. Her feature-length debut, the animated film Bombay Rose, made waves on the festival circuit in 2019, and multiple versions of it are set to release on March 8th, including the original in Hindi, English and several other languages, and an English-only dub from Netflix. (That’s the default audio setting in the U.S., which you can easily switch out of.) Painstakingly hand-painted frame by frame, the film is visually dazzling, veering between styles and time periods to create a living, breathing continuum of Indian art. It’s mesmerizing — but given its haphazard narrative, the film’s delights begin and end at its aesthetics.

Bombay Rose is a story of outsiders in Mumbai, and it expands on Rao’s 2014 Cannes short True Love Story, the silent tale of a roadside flower-seller falling for a bar dancer. This flower-seller eventually became the feature’s version’s Salim (Amit Deondi), a Muslim youth whose parents were killed by militants in Kashmir, while the bar dancer became Kamala (Cyli Khare), a Hindu girl escaping an arranged marriage in her rural village. In the film version, she’s caught in the web of predatory pimp/middleman Mike (Makrand Deshpande), who hopes to ship her off to Dubai as a maid.

Salim and Kamala’s forbidden romance is rife with references to Bollywood classics, in particular the iconic umbrella scene in the song “Pyar Hua Ikrar Hua” from Raj Kapoor’s 1955 feature Shree 420 , the story of a country boy who travels to Bombay in search of work. Where Salim and Kamala were the sole focus of True Love Story, they now make up a third of Rao’s feature-length ode to her ever-changing city. Their tale intersects with the story of Kamala’s younger sister Tara (Gargi Shitole), a sprightly tween imp nicknamed phataka (“firecracker”) who befriends a young deaf dishwasher on the run from the police, and with the story of Tara’s prim and proper English tutor, Ms. D’Souza (Amardeep Jha), an elderly Christian widow who reminisces about her past as a 1950s movie star by getting lost in old films and songs.

Rao’s portrait of Mumbai, painted in striking oranges and reds, opens in the shadow of escapist fantasy, which has come to define the city on the global cinema stage. Hopeless romantic Salim watches a Hindi blockbuster among a rowdy crowd; this film-in-a-film features fictitious superstar Raja Khan (voiced by Gangs of Wasseypur director Anurag Kashyap), a figure who cameos frequently and feels modeled off a combination of real performers, like Bollywood action hero Akshay Kumar, and various moustached icons from India’s southern film industries, like Tamil legend Rajinikanth. A kiss in this film is heavily censored, which frustrates the audience. Even before setting foot in the “real world,” Bombay Rose sets the stage for its depiction of Mumbai, as a place where people from all over the country gather and live in frayed harmony.

Most of the film’s characters are migrants, like Kamala, Tara, and their kindly grandfather (film and TV legend Virendra Saxena), who runs a shop by the beach. But even those with roots in Mumbai seem to belong to a different time and place. When Ms. D’Souza walks down the street, the city transforms into an idyllic black-and-white version of itself, back when it was populated by whimsical tram cars and horse carriages, and when it was still called Bombay. It’s the transformative power of memory, made physically manifest. Meanwhile, an elderly antique salesman smitten by her, Anthony Pereira (Shishir Sharma), laments the fact that no one still alive knows how to repair the various trinkets and music boxes lining his shelves. In Bombay Rose, the fantasy of nostalgia exists side-by-side with its wistful reality.

The characters’ separate stories are intriguing when divorced from the larger whole, and the film features numerous resplendent scenes which look unlike anything put to film. When Kamala walks through Mumbai’s crowded markets, she pictures herself as a princess of the Mughal Empire (16th-18th century CE), traipsing through magnificent halls with Islamic arches and surrounded by magical realism, as the film subtly shifts in style and begins to resemble Mughal miniature paintings. Another astounding sequence is told from the perspective of a honeybee nestled within the petals of a rose, watching spirits materialize and frolic at a Christian graveyard after sunset. Any one of these could be a short film worthy of acclaim. They feel like successors to Rao’s Printed Rainbow, a sublime short where an elderly woman escapes daily mundanities by jumping into matchbox art. But the disparate tales in Bombay Rose rarely coalesce.

The film’s editing feels emblematic of its inability to find balance. By day, Kamala strings flower garlands together on one side of the road, while Salim sells roses on the other. Shots where they gaze at each other from afar are individually magnetic, but time and time again, Rao edits them together through wipes rather than straight cuts, using the cars and buses which pass between them. The idea makes sense at first — these star-crossed lovers, belonging to different faiths, are separated by the city’s fabric — but the vehicular wipes also apply to everything from jump cuts within scenes to the transitions between dreams and reality. After a while, they lose all meaning, and only serve as jarring interruptions whenever Salim and Kamala lock eyes.

The ways the characters weave in and out of each other’s orbits feel like interruptions as well. Kamala and Ms. D’Souza are connected thematically, since they both indulge in vivid fantasies of the past, but their link is nominal at best. Where Ms. D’Souza’s daydreams are tethered to reality — her late husband, and the Bombay of her memories — Kamala’s escape into Mughal artistry feels incidental.

Kamala hugs her little sister Tara in a street scene in Bombay Rose Image: Netflix

And so does much of the film’s action. Re-assemble the story in any order, and the result would feel similar. The tragic moments remain thematically disconnected from the larger story of Mumbai. The dialogue harps on Kamala and Salim’s faiths as an insurmountable wedge between them, and while it’s an honest depiction of India’s religious discord (Muslim men are often demonized with accusations of “love jihad”), this conflict rarely extends beyond spoken observations. The plot could have easily played out the same way if the characters belonged to the same community.

The film’s victories remain just as hollow, seldom stemming from the characters, their wants, or their actions. But while there’s little merit to Bombay Rose as a straightforward narrative, the way it captures Mumbai and all its details is undeniably authentic. The film’s sound mix is just as vital as its hand-crafted visuals, echoing the mechanical cacophony and the hustle-and-bustle of Mumbai’s streets in travelogue fashion. It frames the city’s multicultural fabric and litany of languages as a constant background hum to the story.

Several of these cultural elements are lost in translation in the English-only dub. It brings to mind how the novel Q&A (by Indian author Vikas Swarup) was adapted into the British film Slumdog Millionaire, whose protagonist Jamal Malik (Dev Patel) lost some of his specifically Mumbai flavor. In the book, the character is named Ram Mohammad Thomas, and the identity he chooses in a given chapter alternates between his Hindu first name, his Muslim middle name, and his Christian surname, depending on which neighborhood he’s in. Similarly, the use of language in Bombay Rose tells its own story about different parts of the city.

In the original multilingual version, the main characters speak both Hindi and English, but English is used specifically as a mark of economic status. It’s a clear dividing line between English tutor Ms. D’Souza — an anglophonic woman who prides herself on sounding posh — and her student Tara, who speaks English as a second language. When Tara visits Ms. D’Souza’s comparatively well-off neighborhood, she enters a realm in which English is the norm; Ms. D’Souza even asks Tara to speak “nothing but English in [her] English class” as Tara initially struggles and switches between the two languages. In the English-only version, however, Tara is well-versed in English already, and Shirley simply tells her to “behave like a well-mannered young girl,” which dilutes the class specificities of a child trying to escape poverty through education; in metropolitan India, learning English often means upward mobility.

Strangely, the English-language subtitles follow the English dub exclusively, so the “well-mannered young girl” line appears in both the subbed and dubbed versions, even though it doesn’t match the spoken English. It feels like Bombay Rose faced an uphill battle simply to be understood, between Netflix favouring subtitles which dilute the story, and the first horrendously caricatured English dub sent to critics in November, which can still be heard in the original trailer. The film was originally slated for release in December 2020 before an “unexpected technical delay”; the English-only dubbed dialogue track has since been re-recorded. It sounds more authentically Indian now, since it uses voice actors from India. (The first dub sounded like Indians born and raised in the West had been hired to impersonate their immigrant parents.)

Two Indian children, a girl and boy, look at a wind-up toy soldier and bird in Bombay Rose Image: Netflix

The new English dub is a marked improvement, but it fails to capture the city’s multilingual tapestry. Early on, a local flower-seller (voiced by Court actress Geetanjali Kulkarni) speaks to Kamala and Tara in Marathi, the local state language. The employer of the young deaf boy speaks Tamil, and speaks Hindi with a Tamilian accent. Several scenes are even scored by the famous Konkani-language song “Red Rose” by Lorna Cordeiro, who hails from the neighboring state of Goa, and sings of Mumbai’s multitude of cultures and communities. The song remains in the English version, but the other nuances are lost, and neither the dubbing nor the subtitling attempt to capture them in any way. These are perhaps the occupational hazards of translation, but the dubbed version of the film does thematic disservice to its characters, in a story about their varying cultural relationships to Mumbai.

Still, there are details and moments which remain authentic regardless of spoken dialect. The film is at its most enticing during the diegetic song-and-dance scenes, whenever Salim chances upon a wedding procession or some other local celebration, and joins them on the street. His movements are alluring; the contours of his face and the sadness in his eyes imbue this hand-painted-Bollywood-poster of a person with real depth and pain. These living, breathing details extend to most characters in the film, especially the elderly, whose lives can be traced through their wrinkles and laugh lines, and the shudders in their voices, which are especially prominent in the original multilingual version.

Kamala is a strange exception to this attention to detail. Her design in the “real world” isn’t all that dissimilar from her Mughal miniature version, a more two-dimensional but instantly recognizable art style. The result is a protagonist who feels oddly nondescript, and the story doesn’t lend her enough depth to make up for it. She’s largely passive until she suddenly and inexplicably isn’t — another victory which rings hollow.

But in spite of these narrative failings, which would kneecap most films entirely, Bombay Rose is a stunning visual achievement, and a far cry from the CG-animated fare which tends to garner mainstream attention. Its characters aren’t as complex as real Mumbaikars, nor its story as enticing as its cinematic influences, but it captures, with aplomb, the feeling of being immersed in the city’s chaotic beauty.

Bombay Rose is now streaming on Netflix.

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