Built up brick by brick, brushstroke by brushstroke, Gitanjali Rao’s vision of the bustling city of Bombay is striking from the first frame. For those who know the Indian city and the country’s culture, even the vaguer outlines show a level of accurate detail; from the pan shop to the traffic that makes it so distinctive. The choice to tell the story in English rather than Hindi with subtitles adds another layer, bringing out the nuances in the accent and vernacular, where insults like “rascal” are hurled with such a vehemence that it is entertaining and lovably accurate.
The story follows Kamala, a flower garland seller by the sea, who makes ends meet for her family. Her family consists of her elderly grandfather and sparky little sister Tara, who she’s been able to send to school. Meanwhile, Salim, a mysterious Kashmiri fellow sells bunches of flowers to passers-by, ringing a man from the same village as him for a job to no avail. Passing ships in a bustling area, they strike up an acquaintance, one overshadowed by their different religions and their precarious circumstances.
Though we regularly slip into Kamala’s Hindu fairytale, flying away to greener pastures, the world of this film is built on hardships. For our protagonists “misfortune is just around the corner” with a threatening criminal who turns into a hawk stalking Kamala, and police regularly capturing children like Tipu, a street urchin who works because he can’t afford school.
Contrasting the Bollywood movies on screen, bursting with muscles and melodrama, the love story here relies on moments of quiet. As Kamala and Salim dance around one another, rather than the swelling of an instrumental soundtrack, it’s the diegetic music of a crackling radio or passing bands, punctuated by the rumble of passing trams, helicopters, cars, that serenade them.
Having said that, in moments of isolation, Kamala’s main song is the epitome of Hindi heartbreakers: “drowning in love is a sweetness like no other… how deep can one fall”. As it floats hauntingly throughout tribulation and triumph, one sees an aching sadness in the older characters like tutor Shirley d’Souza that contrasts with the revitalizing brightness of youth in Tara and Tipu.
The disconnect between the eye-catching vibrancy and the lightness with which the plot travels past these characters makes its final act feel a tad unwarranted. At times the quiet and unassuming approach allows the viewer to dwell on its implications, but near the end, exposition happens far too rapidly for its final emotional impact. It leaves a void where there’s more to be said, but then again, perhaps the realism means no joy is taken for granted here. We must settle for unknowns.
Bombay Rose is a gorgeous and culturally unique take on animated storytelling, flitting like a bee between the flowers of each storyline. It doesn’t shy away from difficult subject matter, emphasizing the exploitation that occurs in a city with so many disadvantaged people. While its unpredictability is admirable, the meandering pace means the stories don’t quite hit home in the same way that it successfully manages to capture the eponymous city.
Bombay Rose is available to stream on Netflix now
by Fatima Sheriff
Fatima (she/her) is a biomedical sciences graduate and aspiring science communicator. Literary adaptations with beautiful soundtracks call to her, but she enjoys anything with an original concept, witty writing, diverse casting or even the briefest appearance of Dan Stevens. Her favourite films do fluctuate but her love for Paddington 2 is perennial. She can be found on Letterboxd @sherifff and on Twitter here.