‘All We Imagine as Light’ review: Payal Kapadia’s Cannes winner is a triumph

Payal Kapadia's Grand Prix-winner is a profound, intimate drama that centres the rich inner lives of three women

Pahull Bains
First Published30 May 2024
A still from 'All We Imagine As Light'
A still from ’All We Imagine As Light’

Payal Kapadia’s All We Imagine as Light opens with the chaos of Mumbai but right away it feels different. There’s a sense of rhythm to the disorder; a confidence in how it’s navigated. There’s also the particularity of the colours and shadows of monsoon season, the charcoal grey skies, the rain-darkened pavement. The montage shuffles quickly from scene to scene, from one life and one story to another, until you notice, with a slow dawning realization as opposed to a jolt, that time has slowed down. Our gaze zeroes in on the pensive and weary face of a woman in a blue sari, holding on to a pole in a train compartment as the landscape speeds by behind her. The scene has a mesmerizing quality; it seems almost as if the woman is riding a merry-go-round, an impression that doesn’t feel quite right given the melancholic expression on her face. By the time we’ve absorbed all this, the pace has shifted again and we’re back in the hustle and bustle of the city.

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

These first few moments expertly establish the poetic beats of Kapadia’s sophomore film, which is the first Indian entry selected to compete for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 30 years, following Shaji N. Karun’s Swaham in 1994. (Incidentally, both are Malayalam-language films.) While Kapadia’s film didn’t take home the top prize, it was awarded the prestigious Grand Prix, making it the first Indian film to receive this honour.

Kapadia’s film is as much a masterpiece for its strong visual language as it is for the tender story it’s telling. The woman in the train is Prabha, played by Kani Kusruti, and she’s a nurse at a local hospital. Her younger roommate Anu, played by Devika Prabha, is also a nurse albeit greener. The two share a home and the same place of work but keep secrets from one another. Prabha doesn’t know Anu has a secret Muslim boyfriend, Shiaz. And Anu doesn’t know that the state of Prabha’s marriage, to a man she hasn’t heard from in a year following his move to Germany, is slowly eating away at her. Both women are transplants from Kerala, and save for Prabha’s friend Parvaty (played by Chhaya Kadam), they don’t have much of a life outside of the hospital.

Kapadia’s alma mater, the Film and Television Institute of India, was the jumping off point for her first film, A Night of Knowing Nothing, which won the L'Œil d'Or for Best Documentary at Cannes in 2021. The film is an inventive and moving blend of form, using a fictionalized series of love letters by an FTII student to anchor a larger story documenting student protests across India. The hypnotic film simultaneously manages to exist in both a dream-like state untethered to time as well as in an urgent contemporary political moment.

Her latest film also blurs the lines a bit, bringing in documentarian elements such as anecdotes told via voiceover of real inhabitants of Mumbai — both those for whom the city has always been home and migrant workers who moved there in search of better opportunities. It’s a city that belongs to everyone and no one, the kind of place where one can be anonymous but also never completely free to move about without observation or judgement. We see that in the long lens shots of Anu and Shiaz’s clandestine meetings; they’re both just specks in a crowd until suddenly, one hand reaches for the other and they move together as one.

While the politics of modern India were at the heart of her first film, here Kapadia chooses not to foreground them. Instead they pulse quietly throughout the film, providing texture to the struggles, desires and concerns of these three women. Parvaty’s late husband never transferred their home to her name, and real estate developers are now chomping at the bit to throw her out. In one particularly poignant scene, she curses at the rich and privileged for whom the future is never in question, the ones for whom areas are cleared and skyscrapers built while the working classes must live under constant threat of demolition, of both their dreams and their homes. “They think that by building their towers taller and taller, one day they will replace God,” she says.

The portrayal of Anu and Shiaz’s love story is also a quietly radical act. At a time when the spectre of ‘love jihad’ looms large, we see an interfaith relationship where genuine affection and desire exists on both sides, as does the knowledge that going public as a couple will irrevocably alter both their lives. The tenderness with which Shiaz treats Anu, and speaks of their relationship, is subversive merely in how it creates a counter narrative about Muslim men.

With both her feature films, Kapadia (supported by cinematographer Ranabir Das) has established herself as a powerful visual storyteller. Using the blue tarp ubiquitous in Mumbai monsoons as her cue, she injects the hue into nearly every frame of the first half of the film; it’s in the hospital uniforms, it’s in the walls, it’s in the shiny glass of the city’s skyscrapers and in the cool light in which the film is shot, suffusing the film with a watery, almost surreal quality. The cool blues are punctuated with bold pops of red that insert themselves boldly into the picture. Once you first notice that hit of unapologetic red, you start seeing it everywhere — in an umbrella, in the floral pattern of curtains, in the shiny rice cooker Prabha’s husband sends her from Germany.

And then halfway through, everything shifts. The pace slows down, the shots open up, and the mood lightens as the three women head to the coastal town of Ratnagiri where Parvaty has decided to return. The light also changes — the manufactured light of the first half (emanating mainly from cell phone flashlights, street lamps and fluorescent tube lights) transitions into a warm natural light. It feels as though we’re finally seeing daylight after an extended period in the dark. This once again speaks to Kapadia’s strengths as a storyteller because in a sense, it is in this half of the film when the three women start to see clearly for the first time.

In keeping with Kapadia’s amorphous way of storytelling, and her dream-like visuals, the film moves into a denouement that’s quite hard to categorize. It features a moment of epiphany for Prabha, and the means by which she gets there are curious and unexplained. But they’re also not the point.

Meanwhile, Shiaz pays Anu a visit in the hopes of snatching a few quiet moments with her, and we see them exploring some caves that have clearly been the site of many an amorous meeting. Scrawled across a cave wall in chalk, amongst declarations of love, is the word ‘azaadi.’ The loaded word signifies a freedom both personal and political; for Anu, it’s the freedom to choose her own partner; for Prabha, the freedom to let go of a marriage that exists only in name; and for Parvaty, the freedom to escape the looming threat of eviction and move home by choice, rather than eventual necessity.

By weaving the threads of these women’s desires, hopes and choices, Kapadia has crafted a profound, intimate drama that centres the rich inner lives of working class women in India and their hard-won freedoms. It’s a reminder that glimmers of hope can be found on the horizon, like the first break of light, even after the longest of nights.

Also read: Weekend food plan: Cocktails on a cricket bat and last of mango menus


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