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An Indian tale of love and sisterhood unfolds at Cannes

Kapadia's film follows two women navigating careers and love in Mumbai

Indian filmmaker Payal Kapadia’s new film opens with street scenes of contemporary Mumbai.

But All We Imagine as Light does not show us the rich, elite Mumbai of Bollywood stars and billionaire industrialists. Instead the filmmaker overlays the street images with voices of real immigrants of Mumbai who are the city’s heartbeat.

This is Kapadia’s first narrative feature and it premiered on Thursday night in the main competition section of the Cannes Film Festival. The film received an eight-minute-long standing ovation.

It’s a significant achievement for the filmmaker, and also for India. This is the first time in 30 years that an Indian film has played in Cannes’ main competition section. Kapadia, 38, shares the limelight and the possibility of winning one of the festival’s prestigious awards with the likes of Francis Ford Coppola, Yorgos Lanthimos, Ali Abbasi, Jacques Audiard, and Jia Zhangke.

Over the last four decades, Indian films have done fairly well on the world festival circuit.

Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay won the Camera d’Or at the 1988 Cannes Film Festival. A few days before the September 11 terrorist attacks, Nair’s 2001 classic Monsoon Wedding won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival.

Director Ritesh Batra’s 2013 celebrated film The Lunchbox won the Grand Golden Rail Award at Cannes. And earlier this year director Shuchi Talati’s Girls Will Be Girls was awarded the Grand Jury and Audience prizes at the Sundance Film Festival.

But the possibility of Palm d’Or or one of the other key Cannes awards has so far eluded India – the biggest film producing country in the world. This year, thanks to Kapadia’s beautifully realised and moving film, India stands a good chance of winning.

Already the reviews have been full of high praise. The Guardian in its five-star review describes it as “glorious… an absorbing story full of humanity”. The critic puts the film on a par with Satyajit Ray’s Mahanagar (The Big City) and Aranyer Din Ratri (Days and Nights in the Forest). And IndieWire in its A-grade review says Kapadia’s drama gives Mumbai a romantic gaze, as reflected in the way “people occupy their space… whether alone or sharing”.

Daughter of a well-known Indian artist Nalini Malani, Kapadia is very familiar with Mumbai, a multicultural and diverse city.

“It’s also a place where it’s a little bit easier for women to work as compared to many other places in the country,” Kapadia says.

“I wanted to make a film about women who leave their homes to go to work somewhere else.”

In All We Know as Light, Kapadia tracks the lives and struggles of two Indian nurses from the southern state of Kerala working in a hospital and living together in a small, congested apartment in Mumbai.

One nurse – Prabha (Kani Kusruti, who played a supporting role in Girls Will Be Girls) – is married. Her husband now works in Germany and barely ever communicates with her. But then she suddenly receives a surprise gift from her husband – a rice cooker. She hugs the machine, as if it is the last sign of love in her marriage.

The second nurse, Anu (Divya Prabha), is more adventurous and is carrying a secret romance with a young Muslim man Shiaz (a charming young actor, Hridhu Haroon) who is also from Kerala.

Anu is Hindu and her family would not approve of her relationship with Shiaz.

Mumbai’s congested environment with 22 million people clamouring for space and its harsh monsoon season does not allow Anu and Shiaz any privacy.

But then suddenly a third nurse from their hospital – Parvaty (Chhaya Kadam, appearing in two films at Cannes this year) – decides to leave the city, forced out by the redevelopment of a slum for the city’s rich.

Could this be the chance to change the course of these characters’ lives?

The politics of negotiating space is no different than the struggles of students Kapadia captured in her last film – a documentary titled A Night of Knowing Nothing.

The film premiered in the Directors’ Fortnight sidebar section of the Cannes festival in 2022. It won the L’Œil d’or “Golden Eye”, the festival’s top documentary award.

A Night of Knowing Nothing followed the 2015 students’ strike at the country’s prestigious government-run Film and Television Institute of India. Kapadia was part of the strike, and finally graduated from the institute with a degree in direction in 2018.

In an interview in 2022 she described the documentary as a “love letter to public universities and what they stand for – a place where ideally people of all strata of society can be together and enjoy freedom, both intellectual and physical”.

A similar sentiment echoes in All We Imagine as Light.

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