Home Theatre: Bombay Rose - Every frame a painting
A fortnightly column that focuses on notable content available on the streaming platforms around you, and this week it is Bombay Rose, streaming on Netflix
A few years ago, a friend and I caught Loving Vincent on the big screen. As we stared in awe at the stunning film composed entirely of oil paintings, little did I think that we'd soon get something similar of our own in India, where normal animation itself is a rarity.
Gitanjali Rao's Bombay Rose (streaming now on Netflix) is also made up of frame-by-frame paintings. Though these were drawn and painted on a computer rather than with oil on canvas, the result is every bit as beautiful. And while Loving Vincent draws on the work of Van Gogh, Bombay Rose features Gitanjali Rao's own bold style combined with uniquely Indian forms like Mughal miniatures, Kashmiri truck art, and old-time Bollywood posters. In fact, in an interview with Cinema Express, the filmmaker had said she chose the backgrounds of her protagonists — Kamala and Salim — based on the artforms she wanted to explore. Kamala hails from Madhya Pradesh, known for its miniature paintings, while Salim is from Kashmir. Both escape difficult lives and migrate to Mumbai, where they sell flowers for a living, across the street from each other. A Bollywood romance soon blossoms between the two, filled with stolen glances and roses silently left in flower baskets.
Bollywood finds its way into Bombay Rose in many ways. Movie posters are prominent in several of the scenes, Salim imagines himself as Raja Khan (a composite of several current stars, voiced by Anurag Kashyap), and there's a dance bar very appropriately named Pyaasa. The film even opens with a scene from a Bollywood movie playing in a small theatre. Salim and the film's villain-of-sorts Mike (who, interestingly, wears a very prominent tilak) are both watching a Raja Khan movie. The hero delivers his punch dialogue, beats up the villain, and saves the heroine. Just as he is about to kiss her, however, the scene is censored by the theatre, leaving the patrons angry. There's a beautiful callback to this with another much more elegantly censored kiss later on in the film.
Another Bollywood connect comes in the form of Shirley D'Souza, the English tutor of Kamala's little sister Tara. Ms D'Souza is a former actress and she lives in the past, talking to her late husband about the times they worked together on 1950s Hindi movies. Courtesy of this character, Bombay Rose features several lovely old-timey Bollywood songs. Ms D'Souza's portions also include some retro Konkani music and through her, we get to see old Bombay. When she is walking around the city, it turns into a monochrome Bombay complete with trams. The transitions — here and elsewhere in the film between the different art forms — are gorgeous. And the city, both as Mumbai and as Bombay, is very lovingly depicted. Ms D'Souza's track also features one of the film's most inventive devices, a rose's eye view — we see the city from the point of view of the flower, appropriately rose-tinted, of course.
The third track of the film, and the one least influenced by Bollywood, follows Tara and the deaf boy who works at a restaurant, whom she saves from the police. While all three of these stories have interesting aspects and their intersections are reasonably organic, they somehow don't quite cohere into a whole. Similarly, though the daydreaming portions of Kamala and Salim — in miniature and truck art styles, respectively — are gorgeous to look at, they don't really add a whole lot to the narrative. And while Kamala being a Hindu and Salim being Muslim is commented on through dialogues a few times, not much comes of it. It feels like Gitanjali Rao tried to pack too much into the film and consequently, ended up not being able to do justice to it all. Incidentally, Loving Vincent too had narrative issues, making me wonder if perhaps artists tend to get carried away with the art aspect and overlook the importance of storytelling.
The art, however, more than makes up for the shortcomings in the narrative. Bombay Rose holds our attention through the sheer beauty of its frames. So, while the film itself may not be perfect, every frame of it really is picture-perfect.