The singular achievement of ‘All We Imagine As Light’ at Cannes

Payal Kapadia’s Grand Prix win at Cannes stands alone and deserves better than to be appropriated in the name of national pride

Uday Bhatia
First Published28 May 2024
Payal Kapadia at the 77th edition of the Cannes Film Festival. Photo via AFP
Payal Kapadia at the 77th edition of the Cannes Film Festival. Photo via AFP

All We Imagine as Light wasn’t even supposed to be in Competition at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival. Payal Kapadia’s film was ‘upgraded’ from Un Certain Regard. The narrative was supposed to be about participation. It was, after all, 30 years since an Indian film was in the running for the Palme d’Or, a stat which says more about Cannes’ incuriosity than about Indian cinema itself. Still, you could see how it was going to go: a respectful one-minute ovation at the end, a smattering of reviews by foreign critics marvelling at how this different it is from ‘Bollywood’, and, a few days later, homegrown op-eds about what this ‘really means’ for Indian cinema.

It played towards the end of the festival. The ovation was eight minutes. The initial reviews were ecstatic. Suddenly, the conversation was about awards—not just any, but the Palme. It almost happened too. In the end, All We Imagine as Light won the Grand Prix, the festival’s second highest prize—a first for an Indian film. Just tracking the rapid escalation of fortunes over those two days from India was surreal; imagine how it must have felt for the cast and crew at the festival. “Please don’t wait 30 years to have another Indian film,” Kapadia told Cannes in her acceptance speech.

All We Imagine as Light’s award capped a spectacular year for India at Cannes. Anasuya Sengupta won the Un Certain Regard Performance Prize for The Shameless, a first for an Indian actor (in one of the many struggles of the Indian media with Cannes terminology, this was widely and erroneously reported as her winning Best Actress at Cannes, which is awarded for Competition titles). Santosh, a film with an Indian cast and setting, by British-Indian director Sandhya Suri, played in Un Certain Regard; Sister Midnight, starring Radhika Apte and directed by Karan Kandhari, was in Director’s Fortnight. Chidananda S. Naik’s Sunflowers Were the First Ones to Know... won First Prize in the Cinéfondation, a parallel short film selection for emerging artists.

Kapadia’s ease with the press at the festival isn’t surprising—she’s been here before. She was in Cinéfondation in 2017 with her short film Afternoon Clouds. Her first feature, A Night of Knowing Nothing, played in Director’s Fortnight in 2021 and won the L'Œil d'or award for Best Documentary Film. I’m yet to watch All We Imagine as Light, but the descriptions in the reviews (‘dreamlike’, ‘poetic’, ‘hypnotic’) could all be applied to A Night of Knowing Nothing, a singular, shadowy film about resistance and relationships (both were shot by Ranabir Das). Like her shorts, Kapadia’s first feature operated in a fertile space between fiction, non-fiction and experimental cinema. Still, it feels significant that she broke through on the non-fiction scene, which has offered some of the most dynamic image-making in recent Indian cinema—not to mention two L'Œil d'ors, one Sundance Grand Jury prize, two Oscar nominations in the space of a few years.

A day after the win, Union I&B minister Anurag Thakur posted congratulations on X and wrote: “I am proud to share that this film is also the official co-production of the I&B Ministry and is supported by its Film Incentive Scheme.” This was surprising, to say the least. The film is described everywhere as a co-production between Paris-based producers Petit Chaos and Mumbai’s Chalk & Cheese Films. Thomas Hakim of Petit Chaos told Deadline that the film was helped with funds and grants from the Cannes Cinéfondation Residency, Rotterdam’s Hubert Bals grant, CNC, Eurimages, the Gan Foundation, Cineworld, Visions Sud Est, Arte, Luxbox, Condor and Pulpa Film. This is similar to the funding of A Night of Knowing Nothing: a Sundance grant, an IDFA-Bertha fund, and regional and national funds from France.

It’s not uncommon to see the global successes of individual or small groups of Indians claimed in the name of national pride and political posturing. Yet, in Kapadia’s case, this is particularly egregious. The film seemingly isn’t beholden to India in terms of funding or support—but it’s not just that. Nine years ago, the Film and Television Institute of India, which is under the I&B ministry, targeted its maker. When Kapadia was a student at FTII, she participated in the protests against Gajendra Chauhan, a former actor close to the BJP and the film school’s widely criticised then-chairperson. Kapadia, along with other students, faced disciplinary action, and an FIR was lodged against them; the court hearing, curiously, is next month, on 26 June. A Night of Knowing Nothing drew on the student protests at FTII and elsewhere in the country. Till date, it has barely screened in India, nor is it available on streaming—which is the case with many politically charged independent films in the last decade.

I hope this win leads to more Indian films competing in the top festivals, but I'm sceptical if it will effect any change at home. One small precedent could be set, though. So many excellent Indian films in recent years have played at festivals abroad but remain unseen by viewers here. Digital releases for All That Breathes (last year) and While We Watched (this month) are an encouraging sign. But Indian viewers—not just the festival crowd—deserve to be wowed the same way the first unsuspecting audience on the Croisette was.

Also read: The singular achievement of ‘All We Imagine As Light’ at Cannes

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