Against a white canvas, brushstrokes begin to appear. At first they are nothing but swatches of brown and black, then blocks of color, then suddenly they are a wall of ramshackle houses, a busy street, a flock of crows, a Bollywood poster: Mumbai. It is the city of silver screen melodramas, where impossible romances become possible, where the beautiful girl is saved at the last minute by the handsome hero, who offers her a rose and leans in for a kiss– and then the film cuts, and it is back to real life in the slums. For Kamala, that means selling garlands during the day, dancing at a bar at night, and planning to wed herself off as a bride in Dubai as soon as her documents come through. For Salim, a kashmiri refugee, it means stealing roses off of gravestones to sell at the beach, trying desperately to secure a job. They find moments of escape through their daydreams, and when they meet, those daydreams start to include each other. 

In Bombay Rose Gitanjali Rao expands the story of these two unfortunate lovers from her 2014 short film TrueLoveStory, employing the same frame-by-frame painted animation style as she has used since her 2006 Printed Rainbow. With a team of 60 artists, she brings to life a jewel-toned Mumbai packed with busy traffic and interconnected lives, where daily survival is a struggle but where a miraculous Bollywood ending always feels just around the corner. Yet, when these fantasies “begin to influence and replace reality,” says Rao, “the balance is lost.” The Indian director’s unique animation style, formed under the mentorship of compatriot Ram Mohan and the Polish Jerzy Kucia, allows her to dissolve seamlessly from reality into dreams, altering the style according to the dreamer; Kamala’s reveries are inspired by Mughal miniatures, Salim’s take on a truck art style, and those of an old ex-star are in Gothic black and white. 

With her first feature-length film, Rao subverts the mythmaking of Bollywood cinema without surrendering to bleak cynicism. Gravitating towards a soft social realism, she touches on contemporary topics- Mumbai’s slum population, the Kashmir insurgency, child marriage, human trafficking– but keeps the narrative grounded in the small predicaments of her protagonists. Perhaps there’s no Bollywood ending, but the connections the characters form between each other seem like miracles in their own right.