Credit: Sideshow/Janus Films
by Dhruv Goyal Featured Film

All We Imagine as Light — Payal Kapadia [Cannes ’24 Review]

May 30, 2024

“This city takes time away from you,” says one of the seven disembodied voices introducing us to the wide-awake-at-night Mumbai city in the lyrical opening montage of Payal Kapadia’s All We Imagine as Light. Clément Pinteaux’s jump-cut editing and Ranabir Das’ mobile camerawork enhance this feeling of poetic chaos: we’re always on the move, stumbling into overcrowded streets when not uncomfortably sat inside overcrowded trains and buses, our eyes, like the kinoeye, constantly looking for someone else who’s also grinding it out in the sticky heat of the night. And then, all of a sudden, the film slows down. The most transparently apparent reason for this is to introduce us to one of its central protagonists. But, stylistically, it’s also a cue to slow down: Kapadia, through her patient and soulful film, wants to restore some of the time people feel the city has taken away from them.

Is that a polite way of saying that the rest of the film is yet another exercise in slow cinema? Yes and no. Like Kapadia’s debut feature, A Night of Knowing Nothing (2021) — a hypnotically nightmarish documentation of India’s right-wing regime increasingly crushing any scope for religious and caste unity — All We Imagine as Light, too, is indebted to ‘70s European art cinema more than mainstream or parallel Indian cinema. In other words, Kapadia’s snapshot of Mumbai resembles Chantal Akerman’s alienating portrait of New York in News from Home (1976) more so than Anurag Kashyap’s gritty rendition of Bombay in Black Friday (2004). But Kapadia’s camera is also not as frozen in space and time as Akerman’s: it moves around the city relatively freely, actively seeking connections and interactions with people, not empty spaces. Dhritiman Das’ soothing score (and Kapadia’s repeated use of Emahoy Tsege Mariam Gebru’s simultaneously playful and melancholic “The Homeless Wanderer”), too, fills up the stasis imposed by longueurs of white noise or deathly silence with a flow; Light moves leisurely but never cumbersomely, then, always trying to find other faces and pockets of spaces in Mumbai that allow its characters some time to breathe.

Its search for other people and places, however, never comes at the cost of establishing the three faces around whom Kapadia structures the film’s drama. Perhaps it’s because they, like almost everyone in Mumbai, are consistently searching for something that proves elusive. Anu (Divya Prabha), the youngest and most desperately romantic of the lot, wants to find a safe space to spend the weekend with her Muslim boyfriend, Shiaz (Hridhu Haroon). Prabha (Kani Kusruti), the middle-aged and, hence, the most rational and least expressive, quietly seeks a romantic connection after receiving an unexpected gift from her estranged husband. And Parvaty (Chhaya Kadam), the oldest and fieriest, looks for a new home after wealthy developers blackmail her to empty her current house before they start demolishing it. None of these stories feel like manufactured plots designed explicitly in louder, socially conscious films to declaratively make a point about Islamophobia, patriarchy, or gentrification. Kapadia treats them as critical issues whose foundations may have increasingly started to define the city (one of the film’s most heartbreaking images shows Parvaty and her house pushed to the corner, almost “crushed” by high-rise buildings that lord over them in the background), but not its characters.

Or any of the working-class people in Mumbai. The film’s first hour, in particular, has this astonishing ability to work as an intimate character drama and an expansive city symphony without feeling like it’s prioritizing one over the other. Take, for instance, the film’s opening, which has Mumbaikars poetically recounting (via voiceover) their experiences in Gujarati, Marathi, or Hindi, highlighting the cultural diversity that co-exists in the city. Then, juxtapose it with one of Prabha’s sincerely awkward conversations with a fellow Malayali doctor who reveals that he’s facing trouble learning Hindi, throwing his plans of living long-term in Mumbai into considerable doubt: the initial freedom afforded to the flurry of diverse disembodied voices suddenly feels somewhat undermined. Most other times, though, Kapadia tries to connect her characters with those around her. This is apparent in the film’s many interstitial shots, whereby the camera slips away from our central characters to momentarily look out for other people similarly caught up in their mundane lives — and in sublime moments that turn the mundane into the poetic. Two instances — Anu expressing her love to Shiaz and Prabha expressing her longing for her estranged husband — begin by strictly focusing on the two women. But gradually, Kapadia zooms out: we don’t see Anu or Prabha saying what they feel; we hear their voices echo outwards. In other words, their specific messages become disembodied voiceovers: a hopeful connection formed between people feeling similarly in this sleepless city.

The second half’s shift away from the city comes as something of a shock, then. It’s almost as if the film thinks that the — sometimes silent, other times poetic — interaction between the city, its people, and its central characters has taken away time again from its three leads. So, the film overcompensates with character drama over city symphony: a noticeable step down from the first half’s delicate balancing act of the two, but, in no way, detrimental. This section of All We Imagine as Light, aside from its oversimplistic “rural is better than the urban” message, too works in mysterious ways: the time these women spend in forests, beaches, and ancient caves opens up their otherwise tied-down lives, but in ways that unexpectedly recall Uncle Apichatpong, whose films are all about finding time and spaces to facilitate the presence of present and past lives.

Published as part of Cannes Film Festival 2024 — Dispatch 4.