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Filming Dreams: Desire As Power In Gitanjali Rao’s Animation Movies

July 5, 2012 | By

Gitanjali Rao’s Printed Rainbow describes the loneliness of an old woman and her cat, who escape into the fantastical world of match box covers.

Gitanjali Rao is a self taught animator, film maker and theatre artist. She has independently produced and directed award winning short animation films like, Orange, Blue and Printed Rainbow. The animation industry has largely been associated with creating kiddies stuff.

But of late animation films have come a long way in demonstrating their power in wielding the reel to record subjects of grave importance and serious relevance.

Animation films in India have definitely come of age in the hands of Gitanjali Rao. I have divided my paper into three sections that will subsequently explore the de-stereotyping of childhood in the film Blue, old age in the Printed Rainbow and the cinematic ‘gaze’ in both Orange and the Printed Rainbow.

Helene Cixous theorizes on the existence of a subversive “feminine writing” or ecriture feminine, which has its source in the mother, in that stage of the mother-child relation before the child acquires the “phallogocentric” verbal language, courtesy Lacan.

This pre-linguistic potentiality in the unconscious manifests itself in texts which “abolishing all repressions, undermine and subvert the fixed signification, the logic, and the ‘closure’ ” of the male-centered language and “open out into a joyous free play of meanings” (Abrams 125).

Gitanjali Rao’s films are exercises in story telling without using words. In doing so she evades the risk of appropriation into the existing system, instead she captures the diversity, fluidity and multiple possibilities inherent in the female experience.

The language of subversion that Rao employs to challenge the gendered politics of representation, is very subtle unlike the sharp rhetoric of activism. Desire becomes power and power is appropriated through dreams.

If one accepts the Freudian and Jungian analysis, then dreams liberate and dreams are the manifestations of the libido. According to Freud, dreams are disguised and hallucinatory fulfillments of repressed wishes or desires.

Carl G. Jung, once a student of Freud saw dreams as revealing, rather than concealing, the unconscious. The Jungian school believed that dreams utilize universal symbols. Gitanjali Rao like the Jungian school of thought makes dreams the repositories of cultural symbols.

“The animation style is inspired by the folk and traditional art and crafts of rural India and pursues the task of elevating it to a level beyond that of the kitsch and the exotic” (“Gitanjali Rao”).

Rao also uses images of butterflies, rainbows, cosmic spaces to signify the elemental and the timelessness. Her films entail journeys through childhood, youth and old age. Each of these films is a feminist utopia. Rao in these short yet profound animation movies explores the liberating power of dreams. Through the use of colour, technique and narrative she engenders feminist spaces and engages in subversive processes of filming desires.

Jean Pfaelzer in an article The Changing of the Avant Garde: The Feminist Utopia observes:

Feminist- discourse theorists… deconstruct representational… space… by subverting the old perceptual orders. Dislocate syntax. Dislocate persona. Utopian            authors construct ideal space in order to subvert inequality and inevitability.    Dislocate geography. Dislocate time. Dislocate historical determinism… (282)

The new world is a “feminist hieroglyph” and the utopian fantasy finds relevance only when studied against the imperfections of social reality. Eciture feminine further posits that feminist spaces should be indeterminate and “revel in the pleasures of open-ended textuality” (Moi 106). Feminist utopias in particular are uniquely indeterminate often resulting in monogendered societies. Blue, Orange and Printed Rainbow engage in this process of challenging perceptual orders. Since the spoken word is phallic, Rao’s movies capture unspoken desires.

Blue is a little girl’s dream about exploring space, with her cat.  Blue takes us to a world reminiscent of Blake’s “Songs of Innocence”. The gender bias rooted in the Americanism “pink for girls and blue for boys” is denigrated aesthetically yet firmly.

The stereotype of the girl child playing imaginary games with dolls and kitchen sets, replicating domesticity and motherhood in contrast to a boy getting appellated into the artifice of masculinity through guns and balls, is replaced by the child’s cosmic adventures. Simon de Beauvoir had famously argued that “One is not born a woman, one becomes one”, implying that a woman is conditioned culturally.

Blue can be seen as de-stereotyping these very notions and conditions of being a girl, subsequently female. She does not dream of the iconic room of feminist sociology but her cosmic dream opens up new vistas and offers a spatial expansion of unconstrained identity.

image001Orange challenges the age old stereotyped representations of women on celluloid. The women in this film are a far cry from the timeless Indian models of Sita, Sati and  Savitri. Without suggesting that a female with cigarette on her lips and alcohol at hand is not necessarily a moll or a femme fatal, Rao introduces the female form in an unconventional narrative.

The ‘heterosexy’ heroine of contemporary Indian cinema inspite of flaunting her bikini body and endorsing high street fashion adheres to a strong traditional value system. There is a certain ‘Lakshman Rekha’ that she dare not transgress. So the ultra glam heroine must not be shown smoking or drinking. No wonder then that Orange never cleared the Indian censor board regulations. However it was screened internationally as well as in festivals in India and won three awards. Orange is a conversation between two friends, about love and subsequently about the loss of it.

Nudidity here does not serve to titillate the senses, but rather projects a strange decadence and despondency, almost reminiscent of the Eliot-ian dehumanized world of yellow hands and feet. The male and female form in the nude do not cater to the male gaze or scopophilia that Laura Mulvey talks about, rather nudidity here functions to de-eroticize the human body.

Rao shows us humanity at its most primal form, dealing with the most primordial instincts and emotions. Heterosexual normativity demands categorization, subjugation and passive acquiescence from women. Flying like a butterfly is about unrestrained freedom.

Everytime a woman attempts to fly, she seizes to be ‘lucky in love’. Its only when she turns her back on the man, does she overcome shame, guilt and pain. As she begins to fly, the joy of liberty illuminates her frame. And in this moment of ecstatic exhilaration, the mildewed yellow turns into a brilliant orange. The images of men and women in the nude, also effectively transcend the boundaries of class, race, ethnicity and nationality to achieve the “unity of experience”.

Printed Rainbow describes the loneliness of an old woman and her cat, who escape into the fantastical world of match box covers.  Gitanjali dedicated the film to her mother and her cat. The film went on to premier in Cannes in 2006 and won her the first set of laurels (“Gitanjali Rao”).

image001The old woman’s excursions into the world of the matchboxes, is also about her travels to the lands of heart’s desire. The palace sequence is the perfect Utopia peopled by women alone. The ‘majlish’, suggestive of a ‘mujra’ performance is exclusively enjoyed by the women. The scintillating background of women reclining, dancing, enjoying puffs of the hukka conjure up a picture of the sensual.

A still from the Kamasutra accounts for the only male presence. Interestingly the still shows a woman in control in the act of love. The scene further opens up an all female feminist utopia with strong erotic overtones. Women in the nude bathing and playing games of passion are suggestive of the tradition of ‘sakhis’.

Gita Thadani argues that in contemporary Indian languages there are no terms to define a love relationship between women, except the homoerotic Sanskrit terms such as ‘sakhi’ or ‘jami’. The term lesbian seems controversial to some women in India for its political load, hence the terms in Sanskrit such as “Saheli” or sakhi, seemfar more appropriate, alluding to a female lover and the love between women. (98 Arroyo).

The eroticism in this film is definitely ‘queer’ as the underlying nuances of homo-eroticism are obvious. Unlike Yeats, the woman’s passions are certainly not quite as expected of old women. Empowered by her dreams, her desires help her transcend the symbolic limitations of her flat in Mumbai. Going beyond the metaphoric ‘acre of grass’, she regenders new spaces.

The heroism of the machines created gendered orientations of labour. The old lady in driving a truck de -stereotypes concepts of gender roles vis-a-vis performance. Racing past all the trucks driven by male drivers, she seems to assert unbridled female power and exult in a boisterous, uncategorized female identity, travelling happily along the bumpy road to uncharted desire. The world of reality that she leaves behind is black and white. The blurring of the mundane in sharp contrast to the vivid brilliance of the fantasy world, complicates the notions of the ‘ideal’ and ‘real’.

In the words of Nadezhda Marinchevska,

Gitanjali Rao approaches such themes as solitude and death in a gentle and non dramatic way. The narration carries influences from the eastern philosophy of life and rebirth without ruining the feeling of human warmth. We all can attain harmony but in another world. (“Gitanjali Rao”)


Abrams, M. H. andGeoffrey Galt Harpham.A Glossary of Literary Terms.

Boston:Wadsworth, 2005. Print.

“Gitanjali Rao”. Web.

Garcia-Arroyo, Ana. Alternative Sexualities in India: The Construction of QueerCulture. Kolkata: Books Way, 2010.Print.

Moi, Toril. Sexual/ Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory. New York:                       Routledge, 2002. Print.

Pfaelzer, Jean. “Response: What Happened to History?” Feminism, Utopia, and Narrative. Ed. Libby Falk Jones and Sarah Webster Goodwin. Knoxville: U of    Tennessee P., 1990. 197. Print.

The Changing of the Avant Garde: The Feminist Utopia (La transformation de l’avant-garde: l’utopie féministe). Science Fiction Studies. 15:3 (Nov., 1988), 282-     94. Web. JSTOR. 15 April, 2012.

Routledge_Companion to Feminism and Post Feminism. Ed. Sarah Gamble. London and New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.



I am greatly indebted to Dr. Swati Ganguly of the Department of English, Visva-Bharati, for introducing me to the world of Gitanjali Rao and to the feminist possibilities in her films.

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Debalina Banerjee is Assistant Professor of English, Vidyasagar Evening College. Currently pursuing PhD on " 'Mother' and 'Wife': Interrogating stereotypes in Five Indian English Women Novelists" from Visva-Bharti University. She has paid academic visits to several foreign universities. At present she is working on gender issues and editing a book along with Dr. Benoy Banerjee on Nobel Laureate Playwrights in World Literature. She has also edited another book with Kaustav Bakshi on Indian Poetry in English. She is on the editorial borad of the Journal Annals of the University of Oradea published by the faculty of Social-Humanistic Sciences, University of Oradea, Romania.
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