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Payal Kapadia’s Moving Mumbai Drama

Payal Kapadia’s Moving Mumbai Drama

Back in 2021, Indian filmmaker Payal Kapadia came to Cannes with her first feature-length work, A Night of Knowing Nothing, which went on to win the festival’s Golden Eye prize for Best Documentary. The label is somewhat deceiving: Composed as a found-footage movie about love, loss and film students engulfed in protests against Narendra Modi’s government, the movie played less like a documentary than a fictional collage of documentary elements, carving a sad story out of bits and pieces of real life.

Kapadia’s moving second feature, All We Imagine as Light, starts off in a similar vein. The camera glides through the streets of Mumbai at night, passing through outdoor markets illuminated by fluorescent lights, like tiny cities unto themselves. On the soundtrack we hear people talking about their experiences in India’s largest metropolis: “I always have the feeling that I’m going to leave,” one person says. Then at some point we focus on a woman commuting home by train, and the story begins.

All We Imagine as Light

The Bottom Line

A rich tale of love and loss in the big city.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Competition)
Cast: Kani Kusruti, Divya Prabha, Chhaya Kadam, Hridhu Haroon
Director, screenwriter: Payal Kapadia

1 hour 54 minutes

That woman is Prabha (Kani Kusruti), a nurse who works long hours in one of the city’s many hospitals and finishes her duties way after dark. She’s clearly no pushover and does her job well, taking charge of other nurses in the obstetrics ward and dealing efficiently with patients — including, at one point, a 24-year-old mother of three children who wants her husband to get a vasectomy, for which the Indian government offers a small financial reward.

These early sequences have a documentary flavor to them as well, but they’re nonetheless telling — especially when we realize that unlike most of the patients she treats, Prabha is very much a woman on her own. She does, in fact, have a husband, but he’s been working in Germany for years and they hardly speak anymore. And she also has a roommate, Anu (Divya Prabha), a lively girl employed at the same hospital who’s been dating a young Muslim man, Shiaz (Hridhu Haroon) — a fact that she keeps hidden from Prabha and the other nurses.

As the fictional side gradually takes over, we follow Prabha and Anu while they drift between work, their routines afterward and their long commutes to their apartment, in a daily and nightly grind backed by Dhritiman Das’ jazzy piano score. That music perfectly encapsulates the tone Kapadia is going for: something melancholic but also rather playful, in a film that’s ultimately more of a romantic dramedy than a pure drama. There’s plenty of sadness here, but also lots of humor and female camaraderie.

Prabha and Anu seem to have much in common, such as the fact that they both hail from the Indian state of Kerala and speak Malayalam (in the hospital the doctors speak Hindi). Like so many other people, they’ve come to Mumbai to start a new life, and All We Imagine as Light recalls certain films by Satyajit Ray, such as The World of Apu and The Big City, in which small-town folks give up a part of themselves as they shift to urban living.

But the two women also sit on opposite ends of the romantic spectrum: Anu is in the midst of a passionate love story that’s hampered by the fact that Shiaz is Muslim and she’s Hindu. The couple has nowhere to go to be alone, which means they spend a lot of time making out in public. In one telling and rather amusing sequence, Anu goes to buy a burka so that she can sneak into Shiaz’s apartment, only to learn that his family has come home early.

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Prabha, meanwhile, tries to remain faithful to her faraway husband, warding off the advances of a doctor who’s clearly smitten with her. At some point a package arrives from Germany: It’s a state-of-the-art pressure cooker, sent by her spouse as a gift. As unromantic as that sounds, Prabha nonetheless wanders into the kitchen one night and wraps her legs around the machine, in a heartbreaking attempt to find some intimacy.

All We Imagine as Light is about as far as you can get from the stylistics of Bollywood’s masala musicals, even if there is one short and memorable impromptu dance scene toward the end. And yet its story of women looking for love and happiness in a calamitous world brings to mind those popular Mumbai-set movies, in which heroines suffer plenty of heartbreak before things eventually work out.

This happens, in a sense, during the film’s third act, when Prabha and Anu accompany an older colleague, Parvaty (Chhaya Kadam), on her journey back to the seaside village where she grew up — and where she’s been forced to move after life has become unaffordable, even for a woman like her with a steady job.

The transition from city to country allows the three friends to breathe freely again: They drink and dance and confide in one another in ways they could never do back in Mumbai. Both Prabha and Anu also manage to discover things about themselves and their love lives — whether it’s Prabha coming to terms with her marriage or Anu consummating her passion for Shiaz. The latter sequence is shockingly sensual and seems to break a few taboos, showing a Hindu woman and Muslim man making love at a time when India’s prime minister seems to be doing all he can to ignite tensions between the two religions.

Kapadia and DP Ranabir Das capture these closing sequences with the same elegantly grainy look they apply to the rest of the film, although something spiritual and slightly phantasmagoric creeps into the narrative at the end. It’s as if fleeing the city has allowed the women to reach a higher state of being — the “light” described in the movie’s poetic title transforms from the harsh neons of Mumbai’s streets at night to the calm light of the setting sun, where the friends can finally find some peace.

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