“What is so special about the sea? Why do people go there?” asks Dadaji, a watchmaker in the gullies of Bombay.
“Maybe, to dream a little?” replies Kamala, his granddaughter.
The 2019 Toronto Film Festival Contemporary World Cinema screening of Bombay Rose, a frame-by-frame painted animation movie, narrated a story of love and despair in the city of dreams, Bombay. Gitanjali Rao, the director, writer, editor and designer, worked with over 60 artists for over 18 months to produce this marvel.
Bombay Rose captures the essence of Bollywood perfectly. From the typical good guy saving the love interest from the bad guy to the cliched coordinated dance steps, the Mohabbatien-style Aishwarya-SRK romance might make you nostalgic of 2000’s Hindi cinema.
Nuanced characters and stories
The movie captures the tale of a flower seller and night-time bar-dancer Kamala and petty thief Salim. Interwoven is the life of Ms Shirley D’Souza, and her love for her late husband reminds you of Hindi cinema from the 1950s.
Kamala envisions a love as grand and pompous as that of Salim-Anarkali or Jodha-Akbar, an eternal love story of heartbreaks and sacrifices. She dreams of a love story, of a Hindu princess smitten by a Muslim king.
The story also touches upon Tara, Kamala’s younger sister, and her hearing-impaired orphan friend who she saves from the clutches of the police.
Meanwhile, Shirley, an erstwhile Bollywood actress, listens to ‘Aaiye Meherbaan’, pours herself a glass of whiskey, lights a cigarette and thinks of Guru Dutt.
“How he would make us all wish, we were that cigarette, dangling from his lips”.
Her escape is to the times of Dutt, in the 1950s and 60s when her husband would not stop touching her. Anthony, an antique shop owner, wants to spend an evening with Shirley, with a piano and a cake he dislikes, with a bouquet in his hand, and a kiss on hers.
“Johnnie Walker, rascal.”
Shirley loved to tease Anthony. What else would an old woman with a glorious youth, who serves breakfast for two to her dead husband’s shirt and hat on a chair do?
She dresses up in her bridal wear, puts on red lipstick, and looks into the mirror to see her youth, roaring. As ‘Aao Huzoor Tumko’ plays in the background, she touches the snow globe of a couple, dancing, reminiscent of her and her husband’s love, back in the era of Dutt, awaiting her date for the night.
Politics and love
The contender for the 2021 Oscars has layers of politics infused in it. The daily lives of Bombay street-dwellers are a multitude of identities that mainstream cinema chooses to ignore. Stories of inter-caste and interfaith love, stories of sex workers, stories of child labourers, stories of hawkers, Bombay Rose brings with it countless lives side-lined and reduced to a character in Hindi cinema.
Salim is a Kashmiri Muslim orphaned by the militancy who falls for a Hindu woman, Kamala.
“You left Heaven to live on Earth?” Dadaji asks.
“It’s not heaven anymore,” replies Salim.
In a narrative riddled with several identities and storylines, Kamala’s ‘hidden’ profession as a sex worker is revealed to her love. Her pimp, Mike, wants to sell her off to Dubai, and sees Salim as a threat to his dreams of riches.
“She’s a Hindu. Stay away from her. She’s not for you. Go find a Muslim girl for yourself.”
As interfaith love stories of India become the new ‘love jihad’, the love of Salim-Kamala is fearless.
Of men and freedom
With deaths and incomplete love stories, Bombay Rose ends at an emotional yet powerful note:
“You, a woman, walked over me, a man”
With no external control of her agency anymore, Kamala stands freely atop a castle in the land of her dreams – overlooking the war – not much different to what her life has come to.
Through distress and painful times, Dadaji asks,
“If the mind is flooded with unshed tears, then why would you go to the sea?”
Kamala walks down the shore, drowning the remnants of her love.
Of Bombay and rose
The roses of Bombay Rose hint at love and death, over and over again. Some sequences show the world from within the rose: from a young girl to a grown woman to an elderly woman, to the graveyard.
The movie is an emotional ride and a visual treat. But beyond that, the movie is a commentary on the life of Bombay and the humans behind the concrete jungle and poverty.
The lyrics of Swanand Kirkire and the warm tones of the movie make you feel nostalgic for a place you don’t know, for an era you don’t belong to.
“Rewa, it dwells in my eyes,
The river, it dwells in my eyes.”
From love to death, the rose stands as a reminder – their love blossoms like the rose, yet withers soon; with pricked fingers dripping blood, their love is made eternal through death.
Bombay Rose is now streaming on Netflix.
Anandi Sen is an aspiring journalist, based in Delhi, India.
Featured image credit: Netflix