‘All We Imagine As Light’ Review: Payal Kapadia’s Poetic Meditation On Life In Urban Mumbai – Cannes Film Festival

Of the many films set in India that premiered at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Payal Kapadia’s feature debut is the only one to hone in on the country and its character, which it does by focusing on its most populated city, Mumbai. Like London, Paris and New York, Mumbai is a city of contrasts, a melting pot of castes and races, but of its 12.5 million citizens, over half are likely to live in extreme poverty. All We Imagine as Light tells the stories of the people on the breadline, those who are just about getting by, trying to hold onto their homes and their dignity as the city’s wealthy elite buy up and bulldoze their properties.

Kapadia’s documentary background is apparent from the outset, a series of tracking shots through a bustling city market. All the workers are migrants, from villages far and wide, and while their weathered faces pass by, we hear their (real and clearly unscripted) thoughts. “I didn’t realize so much time had passed. The city takes time away from you,” says one. Another warns, “You have to get used to the impermanence.” A little later, Mumbai will be declared “the city of illusion”, where “you have to believe the illusion, or you’ll go mad.”

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This intriguing prelude gives way to a busy hospital, where nurse Prabha (Kani Kusruti) works, alongside her flatmate Anu (Divya Prabha). The two women are very different; Anu bores easily, never pays her rent on time, and has a reputation for immodesty, having been spotted consorting with a strange man who appears to be her boyfriend. Prabha, however, is the more sensible of the two, which is why the hospital’s widowed cook, Parvaty (Chhaya Kadam) goes to her for advice after the bailiffs come round, trying to force her out of her home to make way for an expensive new development.

The story, which offers only the loosest of narratives, begins in earnest when Prabha receives a present in the mail. It is a high-tech rice cooker that appears to come from Germany, where her husband works and lives. There’s no note, nothing, and that nothing is significant for Prabha who is getting by in his absence and flustered by the amorous attention she’s getting from a visiting doctor, who tries valiantly to communicate with her in Hindi.

Anu, meanwhile, lets it all hang out; rebelling against her parents, who bombard her with cheesy images of potential husbands from a Hindi dating app, unaware that she is secretly dating a Muslim (“How can you marry a stranger?” she wonders). When it becomes obvious that Parvaty — who, like many in the city, doesn’t have a single piece of evidence that her home is hers — won’t stand a chance against the lawyered-up landowners, Prabha and Anu help her move back to her family’s remote village. Anu has arranged to meet up with her boyfriend for a clandestine hook-up, but the calmness of this ramshackle little seaside beauty spot gives Prabha some space to think about the direction her life is taking. Especially when the body of an unknown man washes up at the beach.

This hallucinatory third act confirms Kapadia as a major new talent, and a worthy ambassador for India, which hasn’t had a film in Competition for 30 years. Though it seems to begin as a kind of hybrid documentary, All We Imagine as Light gradually transcends the limits of reality to question the nature of life itself. By taking Prabha and Anu out of Mumbai, even temporarily, Kapadia takes away the overwhelming sensory assault of urban life that stifles contemplation. (“Do you ever think about the future?” asks Prabha. “I feel like the future is here and I’m not prepared for it,” Anu replies.)

The oblique title, mysterious but somehow magical, captures what Kapadia is getting at without being too on the nose. And at a time when so much attention is being paid to the lives of the haves and the have-nots amid such financial imbalance worldwide, it’s refreshing to see the spotlight on ordinary women caught somewhere in the middle, living just enough for the city.

Festival: Cannes (Competition)
Director-screenwriter: Payal Kapadia
Cast: Kani Kusruti, Divya Prabha, Chhaya KAdam, Hridhu Haroon
Distributor: Condor Distribution
Running time: 1 hr 54 min

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