Whatever color you’re imagining when you hear the title “Bombay Rose,” add a little more ruby to it: It’s no slight to Indian animator Gitanjali Rao’s debut feature to say its opulent palette may be its very richest asset. Rao reportedly spent six years crafting this elaborately braided urban romance, and its every shade of turmeric, pomegranate and caramel looks to have been exactingly and exhaustively selected, as Rao builds and fills her Mumbai streetscapes with a patient painter’s eye. (In a most literal sense, too: The film has actually been painted frame by frame.) Even by the standards of artisan arthouse animation — a realm as far removed from Disney as mumblecore is from Marvel — it’s quite a vision.
The film’s authentic regional flavor and stylistic dazzle alone will grab the attention of many boutique distributors, while Rao can expect a long list of festival invitations following dates in Venice — where it serves as a characterful Critics’ Week opener — and Toronto. With Indian animation still a rarity on the scene, “Bombay Rose” has a degree of novelty in its favor, though its maker’s world-class credentials have already been established through her short films, much-garlanded on the international fest circuit. (2006’s “Printed Rainbow” bowed in Cannes Critics’ Week.) Comparisons to Irish toon wizards Nora Twomey (“The Breadwinner”) and Tomm Moore (“The Secret of Kells”) may be most apt, given Rao’s elegant fusion of a traditional 2D aesthetic with sleek contemporary technique, and the clear influence of indigenous folk art.
Indeed, there’s such an abundance of labored-over beauty in “Bombay Rose” that it feels almost churlish to say its storytelling is less enrapturing: Rao, who animated, edited and wrote the film on her own, seems to be least assured on the last of those tasks. Unfolding multiple love stories, past and present, between the denizens of a bustling working-class community in India’s largest city, with sporadic forays into Indian mythology and Bollywood fantasy, Rao’s narrative structure is more ambitious than it is involving — perhaps even a little overstuffed at 96 minutes. Still, it has lively interludes and wends its way toward an affecting conclusion; when things get a little muddier, at least the viewer’s eyes are never unengaged.
The gung-ho romanticism of live-action Bollywood cinema is affectionately satirized and honored from the opening scene of “Bombay Rose,” which enters an old-school Mumbai picture palace to find a full house glued to an action film stacked with blue-steel poses and torrid embraces — until a kiss is clumsily censored from the projection, to the audience’s vocal disgust. Rao’s film isn’t so shy of tenderness as it plots the travails of Kamala (voiced by Cyli Khare), a young Hindu woman escaping an arranged childhood marriage to work as a flower seller by day and a nightclub dancer by night. Rao earnestly portrays her heroine’s hardscrabble existence while also offering her a streak of pure, star-crossed movie romance in the form of Salim (Amit Deondi), a hard-up, true-hearted Muslim lad whose parents were killed by Kashmir militants.
Despite that setup, any political subtext is kept simple and restrained in “Bombay Rose,” which cheers in multiple ways for the triumph of love over difference. There’s scarcely time to go much deeper than that, given the various other storylines Rao has to disentangle, chief among them the bittersweet tale of Shirley (Amardeep Jha), a widowed, retired schoolteacher befriended by Kamala’s young sister Tara (Gargi Shitole), and given to melancholic nostalgia: Her mourning for her late husband gradually gives way to reveal a yearning, forbidden desire in her past. Meanwhile, Tara befriends a deaf street orphan, local police crack down on child labor and threaten the nightclub’s existence, and Kamala’s dangerous pimp persistently meddles in her attempts to forge a new life for herself.
Skipping blithely across lines of time and memory, this is all quite a lot for “Bombay Rose” to juggle — even before we get to the lusciously designed but thematically opaque dream sequences that draw parallels between Kamala’s present-day struggle and that of a bejeweled Mughal princess in ancient India. (There’s a tremor of rueful class commentary here, but it’s never fully expressed.) None of the characters — some voiced by the animators themselves — emerges as particularly vibrant beyond a certain default setting of pluck, benevolence or evil, but they serve Rao’s dedicated tribute to Bollywood melodrama well enough.
Yoav Rosenthal’s swooning, lushly orchestrated score — interspersed with several florid, rather stately ballads — likewise pays tribute to more traditional Indian cinema, though the sweetly unexpected use of the Latin standard “Cucurrucucú Paloma” (as used so evocatively in “Talk to Her” and “Moonlight”) is a sly reminder that Rao is playing on a global arthouse stage. Yet it’s the film’s lustrous visual evocation of Mumbai’s slums that lingers most here, whether painted in vivid, tactile spice-market hues or, in one remarkable time-lapse scene, stripped layer-by-layer to monochrome, like an oil painting in reverse. Whatever “Bombay Rose’s” script weaknesses, Rao proves she has no shortage of ways to fill a larger canvas.