The Quarantine Stream: 'Bombay Rose' is Sheer Visual Poetry

(Welcome to The Quarantine Stream, a new series where the /Film team shares what they’ve been watching while social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.)

The MovieBombay Rose

Where You Can Stream It: Netflix

The Pitch: In the bustling city of Bombay, a young flower seller Kamala is the breadwinner for her younger sister and infirm grandfather. One day, she meets Salim, an orphaned refugee who sells bouquets on the streets and dreams of being a Bollywood hero, and they fall in love.

Why It’s Essential Viewing: India’s award-winning animation master Gitanjali Rao made her debut feature with Bombay Rose at the 2019 Venice Film Festival, where it received raves for its hand-painted animation style that looked like an impressionist painting come to life. But like many a festival favorite bought by Netflix, Bombay Rose seems doomed to be buried in the streamer’s unforgiving algorithm. Don’t let this gem of an animated movie — equal parts love letter to classic Bollywood cinema and wistful melodrama — pass you by.

Never has the city of Mumbai looked so colorful, and bright, and impressionistic. Under Rao’s carefully hand-painted animation (a process that took 18 months with 60 artists), Mumbai transforms from a bustling modern city, full of street merchants selling marigolds or heaps of turmeric, to a black-and-white post-colonial cityscape reminiscent of Bollywood’s Golden Age, to a medieval fantasy land with mythical creatures. The Indian city has been dubbed “the city of dreams,” and Bombay Rose is a dreamlike ode to that title.

It’s in this vibrant cityscape that Kamala (voice of Cyli Khare) and Salim (Amit Deondi) meet — she a young flower seller who strings together garlands all day near her grandfather’s (Virendra Saxena) watchmaker stand, he a hawker of flower bouquets in the busy streets. It’s a romance for the ages. The pair meet eyes one day, and it’s love at first sight. But several obstacles lay in their way: he’s Muslim, she’s Hindu. Nevertheless, the two of them escape into a star-crossed romance that mostly takes place in their imaginations — he’s a swaggering Bollywood hero who rescues his sweetheart from a dangerous trafficker, she’s a princess who overcomes all sorts of dangerous threats to be with her lover.

Bombay Rose is overflowing with imagination. Not just in its ever-shifting art style, but in its characters who live one step out of reality. Kamala and Salim imagine themselves romantic heroes, while an older film actress retreats to the black-and-white glory days of her youth, the film morphing around her as she wanders through her fading memories. Brush strokes seem to gain sentience, flitting around the screen to form new, more beautiful visions of the world.

But the characters’ greatest obstacles aren’t in the mythical monsters they imagine, but reality. Kamala struggles to pay off a debt to a local mobster for whom she works at a dance bar at night, while Salim has never recovered from his parents’ senseless wartime deaths. Bombay Rose‘s high melodrama meets nostalgia in a heightened homage to Bollywood that can sometimes lean too heavily into the archetypes and the overwrought emotions, but is inarguably an arresting piece of visual storytelling.

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