Big wins at Cannes changed the game for animation filmmaker Gitanjali Rao, but also didn’t

Words by Arpita Das | 28 Jun, 2017

A self-taught animator, filmmaker and theatre artist, Mumbai-born Gitanjali Rao’s debut animation short Printed Rainbow premiered at Cannes in 2006 as part of Critics’ Week. The film tells the story of a housebound old woman and her cat through the fantastical world of matchbox covers and was the first Indian film to be selected in the short films category in the critics’ section at the Cannes Film Festival. Printed Rainbow won three awards at Cannes that year and was later shortlisted for a 2008 Academy Award. Rao’s fourth film, the animated short True Love Story (2014), was also premiered at Cannes. In 2016, Rao surprised and delighted her Facebook followers with “Wishfies,” a disarming project in which she dressed up as iconic personalities, including Indian painter Amrita Shergill, Argentine revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara and iconic Bollywood actress Madhubala whose photoshoot with James Burke for Life magazine in 1951 shifted perceptions of the modern Indian female. Arpita Das spoke to Rao in Delhi.

Arpita Das: The idea of finding a quiet haven in the middle of the big city seems to be something that you revisit in a lot of your work. Yet there is a lot of the flâneuse-film-maker in you. You obviously love the colours and sounds of your city, which also figure in your films in unique ways. How does a film-maker resolve this dualism?

Gitanjali Rao: I am born and brought up in Bombay so as a kid when others would visit their native places, which epitomized the quiet havens, I learnt to find my own within the heart of the city. I grew up finding maximum privacy in thought and imagination right in Churchgate railway station [in south Mumbai] during peak hour. I learnt to use this expression in my films. In a city you learn to value one because of the relentless existence of the other. So yes, silence and noise, colour and the lack of it, crowd and loneliness, all complement each other in my films. One cannot exist without the other. To me that is the city and the city dweller. The silence, the loneliness and the colourlessness exist in the psyche of my protagonists. They build it from nothing. Through dreams, fantasies, emotional states, etc. Therefore, even if there is noise in my films, the space for silence is immense.

It’s like being stuck in a traffic jam. There are two ways of dealing with urban clutter. One is when you shut your car window, put on the AC and play your favourite music. That’s what Bollywood does. The other is to be in its midst and search for the quiet haven, like those without cars do. I am interested in the second. My stories are about those people.

AD: Amid the beauty of all your animation films, there is the frightening thought that the big city routinely crushes its more vulnerable citizens. Either with loneliness, as in Printed Rainbow, or more literally, as happens in True Love Story. How much is this a thought that remains uppermost in your mind as you make your films?

GR: Having never studied film-making or animation formally, I have tried to learn storytelling through observation. Mostly folk tales and mythology, which have used narrative structures to tell tales. The presence of a villain therefore becomes necessary to complete the stories of heroism. Yet if one was to set this convention in reality, it gives you a very large space to pick and choose your heroes and villains. Invariably, the city for me makes the invincible villain. An omnipresent one. My heroes—real, vulnerable people, not success stories—may get crushed in the process, just as happens in reality to people. But their spirit invariably wins. For me, coming to terms with a situation, and managing to still dream through it, is the victory. Not a conventional victory but a more real one. So although the city is the villain, it is also the home, the provider, the support, the lover, all at the same time.

The theme of urban migration has been uppermost in almost all my stories because that is something I live with, am sensitive and react to most easily. Also since I deal in fiction through animation, I revel in recreating the real world through paintings. The medium itself allows for the real to become poetic. Why then not make use of this poetry to tell a harsher truth than live action can?

AD: Would you say that a lot of what you do with your work now had its seeds in your years of study at Sir J.J. Institute of Applied Art in Mumbai? With animation, does a formal training matter? Is India on par with countries where you feel standards are being set for this field?

GR: I did not study animation. In those days there was no real animation course except at the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad. I was clueless about what to do in life after graduating. I knew what I didn’t want to do and that was to join an advertising agency. Somehow, in spite of studying for five years, I did not want to go the agency way. I was interested in film. And I loved painting. So somebody told me about Ram Mohan Studios in Bombay where they were hiring and training artists to become animators. I joined and learnt on the job.

It’s the least easy or luxurious way of learning a skill, and certainly the most demanding and strenuous. I am someone who believes more in hard work than talent. Pedagogy is a privilege of the few. Even when I teach animation, I place emphasis on developing the skill to tell your story, not thought so much. Thought and ideas are what life teaches you. You do that outside of college.

In India, in most animation courses like Aptech, Arena and Maya, animation is not really taught as an art—it is viewed as an employment opportunity. Software not cinema, sometimes with a bit of story and filmmaking basics thrown in. What we are creating is a manual workforce for big foreign productions. Whereas in countries with a longer tradition of animation, study begins with an appreciation of animation itself—like cinema. Unless we change this approach, we are never going to be teaching artists to become animation film-makers, only animators.

AD: How tough was it to get people to take your work seriously? Was it a gendered reception initially?

GR: It took a while. More than gender, it was the unconventionality of my style and subject that people did not take seriously. Not making funny films, children’s films, not copying the Disney style, not using star voices, are still issues that lead to you not being taken seriously. But Cannes did the trick.

I would like to stress that gender in animation works quite differently. It’s true that the world over has more men in higher positions in studios that do commercial work. But in the case of auteur animation with a personal style, there are as many women as men. This being essentially a time-consuming and patience-requiring work, more women take to it—and are greatly successful on the international scene. I have known of women using their pregnancy months to complete animation films. But this is restricted to small and individual films. Not the real business of feature films, an industry still very biased against female directors.

AD: Cannes has been particularly good to you. How was that experience?

GR: It changed my life, like it is supposed to. I was taken seriously only because of winning three awards at Cannes. It was overwhelming. I had only once been outside of India before that, to Poland, to do an animation workshop. So Cannes was like a revelation. It made me happy because I belonged there more than in the cartoon world. I was exposed to a cinema-literate audience for the first time. Even the people who served you coffee or your cab driver had an opinion about cinema. Not entertainment but cinema.

Cannes is very tough to get into but once you are in, they adopt you. They look forward to your next film; they critique you ruthlessly but also forgive your mistakes. It’s your journey as a film-maker that they invest in, not just your films. That was refreshingly different coming from a land of weekend collections that make or break directors.

AD: Independent film-makers often say that winning an award helps as leverage to get better opportunities. Did it work like that for you as well?

GR: Winning a big award is probably the only way for independent filmmaker to get noticed. Every year at the National Awards we see the emergence of a crop of independent film-makers, actors and technicians. International awards get you noticed even more. However, whether this results in better opportunities is subjective. In my case, it didn’t. But there are reasons for this. I work with two-dimensional animation films that are very laborious, time-consuming and expensive to make. For financiers it means taking a bigger risk with a debut film-maker.

The conventional way of recouping investment capital in animation films is by making children’s films that are highly entertaining, feature star voices and have plenty of merchandise potential. Since my films do not cater to any of these conventions, I have found it very difficult to finance my feature film. Animation features in India do not enjoy any kind of government funding if they are not for children. While awards haven’t worked for me, at least in terms of leveraging production money, I know they work better for live-action and documentary film-makers. It also helps in international co-production, which is becoming more common in the industry.

AD: Your recent project of identifying yourself with iconic photos of well-known personalities, of inserting yourself into iconic works of art—did this begin playfully and turn into something more determined, or were you setting out with a narrative in mind? The project has since gone viral. Did that surprise you?

GR: It began as most time-passing creative work does for me: I often make sketches, illustrations or bits of animation that I upload onto Facebook to gauge audience reaction. This was just one of those instances. After much resistance, I got my first smartphone a few months before I began this project. I shot my first selfie and found it devoid of any interest. I thought of who I would want to shoot myself with, who I would like to be seen with. Frieda Kahlo and Amrita Shergill came to mind instantly, both being artists, and I began to explore the possibility of looking like them in their times and places.

I tire easily of repeating themes. After these personalities, I decided to change to more impossible things like animated characters, paintings and iconic photographs.

The reaction of course took me completely by surprise. I also got a little tired of the attention it received. I didn’t feel it deserved so much, so I stopped it at that point. That’s the fun of these projects: you can do them without taking them seriously!

AD: Your contribution to the graphic-novel anthology First Hand (2016) is an interesting attempt at something different. Was it much like creating a storyboard for a film? And is your contribution ‘Akhtari’ the start of a storyboard for your next film?

GR: Graphic novels are a very different medium to animation films. It was a big struggle for me to wean myself from looking at time in sequence as in film and not in arrangement as in graphic novels. That is why ‘Akhtari’ looks like a storyboard more than a designed page. I need to devote more time to graphic novels in order to immerse myself in the medium. So no, it was not an easy experience at all, much more of a struggle than making a storyboard. In film one is thinking also of sound and dialogues as layers that leave the space for visuals alone, which is not the case in graphic novels.

To direct the reader in a certain direction is very different from directing the viewer of a film. The pace of storytelling depends on design and layout, not the timing of scenes. I learnt to appreciate these differences through this attempt. I do wish to make an anima-doc on Akhtari some day, but it would be very different from this rendition. This particular graphic narrative is, I am hoping, a precursor to a full-length novel on Begum Akhtar, a well-known Indian singer of Hindustani classical music.

Let’s see how it turns out.