Payal Kapadia on her Cannes sensation ‘All We Imagine as Light’

Payal Kapadia celebrates on stage with her cast after she was awarded with the Grand Prix for the film 'All We Imagine as Light' at the the Cannes Film Festival. Photo by AFP
Payal Kapadia celebrates on stage with her cast after she was awarded with the Grand Prix for the film 'All We Imagine as Light' at the the Cannes Film Festival. Photo by AFP


Director Payal Kapadia on how the city of Mumbai and the idea of friendship beyond language inform ‘All We Imagine as Light’

In the short span of a week, Payal Kapadia has become a household name. All We Imagine as Light, a profound, intimate drama she’s directed, became the first Indian film to win the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival. It follows three women of different generations, who all work at a Mumbai hospital: Prabha (Kani Kusruti), Anu (Divya Prabha) and Parvaty (Chhaya Kadam). All three are dealing with personal crises of varying degrees: Prabha is trying to decode a mysterious gift from her husband, who hasn’t contacted her in a year; Anu is navigating an interfaith relationship while fending off more “suitable" matches from her parents; and Parvaty is in danger of being evicted from her home after her husband’s death.

Kapadia, whose first feature was the award-winning docu-fiction A Night of Knowing Nothing, is a master of both form and function. Here, she crafts a touching tableau about belonging, desire and freedom, while playing inventively with sound, pacing, colour and light to create a cinematic cadence all her own. After the film premiered on 23 May and before it won the Grand Prix, Lounge caught up with Kapadia and the film’s cinematographer, Ranabir Das. Edited excerpts from an interview:

The film shows the kinds of friendships that can only exist between people in a city that’s not their home. What is your relationship to Mumbai?

Payal Kapadia: I was born there but I didn’t always live there. I went to school in Andhra Pradesh for 10 years and then I came back to Mumbai for college but then I did FTII (Film and Television Institute of India) for five years in Pune. Actually the most I’ve lived at a stretch (in Mumbai) has been more recently. I think when you leave a city and come back, you notice the changes more. And he (gesturing towards cinematographer Ranabir Das), he’s not from Mumbai, he’s from Kolkata, so maybe he always had an outsider’s eye.

Ranabir Das: On some level there are some similarities between these cities but when you first move to Bombay it is very difficult. It has its own energy and it has its own ways of being.

PK: There’s no time to just sort of hang around. You have to constantly be working, to just be able to live. And that’s the really sad part about it.

Let’s talk about the colour palette of the film—blue is the dominant colour in the first half, with striking pops of red. And at some point I started noticing the purples…

PK: When you go out in Mumbai in the monsoon, you see a lot of this blue tarpaulin that everybody covers their balconies with. It was something that we kept noticing, even the most swanky building will have a blue plastic tarp and so will a very makeshift house. So this was something that we wanted to do in the film. And also magenta and purple, I think magenta especially is a colour that’s very unique to India; I see it a lot more than I see it in other countries. I really like the colour and it’s something we wanted to incorporate in the film in a big way. And the second part of the film is in Ratnagiri, which is in the Konkan area, where there is a lot of laterite red rock, which becomes the red soil. So it’s very much a part of the landscape there. And all the houses are made with laterite rocks, including Parvaty’s house. The contrast between the two spaces I thought could come out more with the colour.

Malayalam is not a language that you speak. How did you write the script—were you writing in Hindi and then working with a translator or a co-writer who knew both?

PK: I wrote with my associate director, who’s Robin Joy. I also had another dialogue writer, Naseem Azad. Robin is Malayali and writes really well in Malayalam. I have known him for a long time; he’s a director and his short films from FTII had a certain poetic quality that I always liked, so I thought he would be a good person to collaborate with. So he became the person who knew the script in and out and helped me with it. He was with me on set and he would say, okay, this is just not sounding right, I know you like the tone but it just doesn’t work in Malayalam.

And the actors brought in a lot. For one month (before the shoot) we lived together; we tried all the scenes out with Robin and he would change lines if (they) said something that sounded better. So it was hard to do, but having somebody like him on board and also the actors, with how committed they are and amazing they are, it really helped. But we took a long time. All these processes took time.

Was there ever a point at which you thought about having a mix of different languages or were you always sure it was going to be pretty much entirely in Malayalam?

PK: I like the idea that two people could be friends even if they don’t share the same language. For Parvaty, her main language is Marathi but she speaks in Hindi to Prabha, and Prabha’s main language is Malayalam, and she doesn’t speak very good Hindi, but they communicate like this. I like the idea of friendships forming outside of language barriers. It’s like my utopian dream, so I was excited to do that in the film.

And was the reason for making it in Malayalam because it was a film about nurses, and so many nurses come from Kerala to Mumbai?

PK: In the beginning, the film started off because I was sort of shuttling between my grandmother, who’d had a fall, and had a nurse who would come to help her in the day. She was from Kerala originally, and I spent a lot time hanging out with her and chatting and chilling. And also my father was in hospital a lot at this time so I was going back and forth, and observing the hospital dynamics. A hospital is a very interesting and intriguing place for me. So (because of) these two things, I started dreaming about a film that would be based in a hospital and you can’t think of hospitals in India without thinking about nurses who come from Kerala.

Your last film was a beautiful mix of documentary and fiction, and even in this one there are some documentary-style filmmaking choices at play. Is that something you are drawn to?

PK: I just like having both the forms together. I think that this sort of segregation between the two, I don’t know... One should just make a film and not worry that is it fiction or non-fiction.

What kind of truth do you think comes out from blending the two?

PK: I think that the juxtaposition of the two—the fiction and non-fiction—the montage of this can create a meaning or a third truth.

RD: I think in this film a little bit of the non-fiction element made the fiction stronger.

PK: And in the other one (A Night of Knowing Nothing), we hoped that the fiction helped us navigate the non-fiction. I always feel like nothing is completely fiction and nothing is completely non-fiction either.

Even with fiction, you are shooting people at the end of the day, and every gesture is the documentation of their gesture—so in that sense there is some non-fiction there as well. And that’s the joy of cinema.

Pahull Bains is a freelance culture writer and programmer at the Reelworld Film Festival in Toronto.

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