Cannes Xpress 2024: All We Imagine As Light— A luminous portrayal of lives less ordinary

Cannes Xpress 2024: All We Imagine As Light— A luminous portrayal of lives less ordinary

The feminine, feminist film is a wonderful rumination on what it means to be a single woman in what might well be the safest and friendliest city for them in India.
All We Imagine As Light(4 / 5)

The profoundly contemplated and nimbly realized opening sequence of Payal Kapadia’s All We Imagine As Light makes a perfect prelude for the range of themes that her debut feature film strives to explore; it’s like a shorthand or notation for all that sprawls in its core. The documentary footage captures the bustling megapolis of Mumbai and its bristling energy, bursting at its seams, teeming with people who have left their homes behind and migrated to it from near and far to find livelihood and life in its steely fold. There’s the smorgasbord of languages and accents, cuisines and cultures bound by universally felt existential anxieties—the inability to call Mumbai home for the fear of having to leave it at some point, a place that liberates but holds you in thrall, that makes you hit the depths of loneliness but turns strangers into friends and family, that breaks your heart but also helps you forget the trauma and move on, a city that takes time away from you and forces you to get used to the reality of impermanence.

As the narrative seamlessly transitions from this macro human canvas to the micro-focus on two nurses from Kerala—one sleeping, the other at the door of the women’s compartment of the local—it feels like a metaphor of sorts for Kapadia’s own journey as a filmmaker—from the world of the real to that of fiction, even while underscoring that the imagined story of Prabha Chechi (Kani Kusruti) and Anu (Divya Prabha), that we are about to witness, is one that is rooted in truth.

Separated by age, the two share a room in Mumbai. Prabha, long estranged from her husband, has not met him in the years following their wedding. Anu is always in search of a bubble of intimacy with her boyfriend (Hridhu Haroon) in the milling crowd, the kind of romantic pursuit that can happen only in Mumbai. Meanwhile, their working-class friend from rural Maharashtra Parvati (Chhaya Kadam) is facing the threat of eviction from what has been her home for 22 years. All because she doesn’t have the requisite papers of ownership. “Without papers a human being can just vanish into thin air,” she says, ruefully.

One fine day a strange gift—a rice cooker—arrives for Prabha from her husband and stirs a literal pot of feelings. A trip to Parvati’s hometown by the sea further stokes desires—buried and latent in Prabha and covert and clandestine when it comes to Anu.

As Anu manages to finally have the elusive rendezvous with her boyfriend in the caves and by the sea, they can see a fearless future together. In trying to revive a passed-out stranger who is washed ashore from nowhere, Prabha finds herself resuscitating feelings that she thought were dead. In the depths of darkness, they are all able to find light.

Kapadia’s film that competes for Palme d’Or at Cannes Film Festival, thirty years after Shaji Karun’s Swaham, might be about emotions that often border on the fractious, but her narrative is quiet, limpid, and luminous, one dulcet moment mellifluously flowing into another, with silence doing most of the talking.  

There is an inveterate reliance on the power of the implicit. Even when Kapadia is confronting contentious issues, be it that of identity politics, workers’ rights, builder mafia or religious divides, she is more introspective than shrill. One moment of anger and exasperation peeps in when the so-called spirit of Mumbai is invoked and critiqued, how you are made to believe in that illusion of resilience just for the sake of survival.

Ranabir Das’s camera, Benjamin Silvestre, Romain Ozanne and Olivier Voisin’s sound design, Dhritiman Das’s music and Clement Pinteaux’s editing come together to make Mumbai throb with life.

The three women are a study in contrast, but Kapadia makes you feel for each of them even as she is herself warm and affectionate towards them. There’s an intuitive empathy for their choices, dilemmas, and contradictions. Something as banal as eating in a neighborhood restaurant that you had never visited but for the last day in the city makes you well up with feelings. It’s equally moving to hear Prabha talk about how people you know can become strangers and how she barely communicates with her husband because they may have run out of things to say to each other.

Kani Kusruti brings the right measure of diffidence, righteousness and moral uptightness to the gestures, body language and the entire being of Prabha, who seems to be merely existing than truly living her life, not even going out for an occasional movie. There’s the uneasy calm writ large on her face hiding a festering restlessness and lack of joy. Divya Prabha as her opposite Anu is just the right bit reckless and subversive, the one who wants to embrace life and experience it to the hilt. Kadam plays the practical one of the three, with guts and gusto. The one who is willing to leave Mumbai behind if it doesn’t want her. Haroon gives lovely company to the band of mercurial women.

The feminine, feminist film is a wonderful rumination on what it means to be a single woman in what might well be the safest and friendliest city for them in India. But more than that it’s a meditative, almost spiritual evocation of the human condition at large.

At times a film mirrors life for its viewers. At others it becomes what viewers bring to it from their own experiences. Just like Prabha projects her life’s dilemmas on a stranger, I found my relationship with Mumbai in the 114 minutes of Kapadia’s wonderful ode to the city. The city of dreams for some but a house of illusions for others. A city I have always felt a deep sense of belongingness for but could never make a home in. Like Parvati, Anu and Prabha.

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