Getting animated

Gitanjali Rao's body of work includes animated commercials, pre-production for animated features, logo-motions, as well as graphic novels and illustrated stories

Bombay Rose

For theatre actor and filmmaker Gitanjali Rao, animation is her medium of emoting. “I have always wanted to paint as well as tell stories. Since the two come
together in animation, that became my voice,” she says.

Currently promoting her “labour of love” Bombay Rose, Gitanjali’s debut feature film was the first Indian animation film ever selected to open Venice Critic’s Week. The film had its North American premiere in the Contemporary World Cinema section at the Toronto International Film Festival, was part of Special Presentations to play at the BFI London Film Festival 2019, and had an Asian premiere at Busan International Film Festival 2019.  

A self-taught animator and filmmaker, Gitanjali emerged onto the international stage with her animated short, Printed Rainbow which premiered in Cannes Critic’s week 2006 (Kodak Discovery Award, Petite Rail D’Or, Prix Du Jeune). The film went on to win 25 awards and was shortlisted for the Oscar in 2008. Her four independently produced animated shorts have been to over 150 international film festivals and received more than 30 awards. They have been showcased in international art biennales in India, Poland and USA.

Painted frame by frame, Gitanjali’s films travel seamlessly between harsh urban reality and the dream world created by the psyche, to escape that reality. While her depiction of urban reality has a documentary style, the intricate dream worlds are inspired from the rich and varied folk art styles of India. Excerpts from an interaction about her animated journey: 

How did you get initiated into animation? 

I watched European animation in film festivals and especially fell in love with Polish and east European style of animation back in the 90s. Jerzy Kucia’s films actually made me decide to take up animation as a powerful medium of emoting through movement.

What was it like to make a full-length animation feature?

The biggest challenge was the financing of the film. Trying to make an artistic, socially relevant, not for children alone, animation film with no star voices or big names as a debut is in itself a challenge for any one interested to bet their money on. So I used the time in between to make one story from the feature into a short film, TrueLoveStory which premiered in Cannes Critic’s
week. That brought conviction into the style of animation and the film’s emotional connect. By then, I had secured my French producers les Films Dici. Then over various script labs and co-production markets, I managed to find Cinestaan to partner with.

Gitanjali Rao
Gitanjali Rao

How do you manage to blur the lines between fantasy and harsh realities of life?

In all my films, the real proceeds into the imaginary world of the characters. Be it Orange, where the woman’s spirit takes on the form of a butterfly, or Printed Rainbow where the matchbox is the trigger for the old woman’s fantasy, even in Chai, where I transit from live action, into animation to bring alive the lost world of the characters. Similarly, in Truelovestory, the fantasy world of Bollywood is the protagonist’s escape from reality. In Bombay Rose, since I have the luxury of a long format, my characters
move seamlessly into their dream worlds from reality. I use different art styles that belong to their culture to enable them to escape into what might have been a reality ages ago. The audience is wont to expect something beyond reality when they watch animation. However, unlike conventional animation films, my dream worlds are fantastical in the psychological way, not just in space and time.

What is it like to be an animation filmmaker in India? 

Not very different from being a documentary filmmaker or a children’s filmmaker or an independent filmmaker. There is no state support. The big players in the industry are not interested in us, unless we make big bucks. Since we don’t, we all fall into the same category of ‘minorities’ with no reservation quota.

You have won accolades abroad, but has the same eluded you in your own country?

Not really. My two short films won the grand prize in one of the few festivals for animation, MIFF. I did not send it for the National Awards because I do not believe in its censorship rules. Apart from these, there are very few prestigious awards in India for animation films.


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