Though Kapadia's Malayalam-Hindi feature, All We Imagine As Light, is the centrepiece in the main competition, India has a lot more to celebrate at the 12-day festival that kicks off today

As the curtain rises on the 77th edition of the Cannes Film Festival, being held in the French Riviera between May 14-25, India has got a great deal to celebrate. The biggest film festival in the world will see a clutch of Indian films compete under various segments, with Payal Kapadia leading the pack with her Malayalam-Hindi feature, All We Imagine As Light, an India-French-Dutch co-production centred on the lives of two nurses from Kerala, who work at a hospital in Mumbai. In a year that marks a new era for independent, women-centric films (and mostly directed by women) at Cannes, Kapadia (38) has made history by being the first Indian filmmaker in 30 years to a be a top contender; All We Imagine As Light will be screened in the festival’s main competition, Palme d’Or.

In 1994, it was Shaji N. Karun’s Malayalam drama, Swaham (My Own), starring Ashwini, Venumani Vishnu, and Mullenezhi, that became India’s centrepiece in the main category at Cannes. It revolves around a bereaved mother, Annapoorna (Ashwini), who struggles to make ends meet by managing a tea shop near a railway station once owned by her late husband. In a desperate attempt to secure a stable future for her son Kannan, Annapoorna sends him to a military recruitment camp. However, the high admission fee pushes the family deeper into financial distress. Tragically, Kannan loses his life in a stampede at the camp, leaving Annapoorna, and her daughter, devastated.

Incidentally, the only Indian film to have won the top honour at Cannes — then known as Grand Prix du Festival International du Film — was Chetan Anand’s Neecha Nagar (Lowly City, 1946). Inspired by Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths, it’s the story of a wealthy landlord, Sarkar, who is met with resistance from poor villagers, led by Balraj, after he directs all waste into their village to make space for his real estate project. Ten years later, Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road) was part of the competition, but it only received the Best Human Document award. Other Indian films to compete for the coveted award include V. Shantaram’s Amar Bhoopali (1951), Raj Kapoor’s Awaara (1953), Ray’s Parash Pathar (The Philosopher’s Stone, 1958), M.S. Sathyu’s Garm Hava (1974), and Mrinal Sen’s Kharij (The Case is Closed, 1983).

‘All We Imagine As Light’: Cinema As Art

Kapadia, an alumna of the Film & Television Institute of India (FTII), is a talent to watch. The daughter of artist Nalini Malani, who is inspired by the melancholic, dreamlike compositions of Arpita Singh’s paintings, is interested in using cinema as art. At Rishi Valley, the school founded by Jiddu Krishnamurti in Andhra Pradesh, where she studied, she became invested in the ‘alternative’ way of thought. It was here that she watched Andrei Tarkovsky’s Soviet drama film, Mirror, the story of Alexei, a man in his 40s, who reminiscences about his family and his life — torn apart by political and social upheaval — while he is on his deathbed: “a subtly ravishing passage through the halls of time and memory, and a sublime reflection on twentieth-century Russian history.”

Tarkovsky and the ‘alternative’ gaze inform Kapadia’s work. While she was still at FTII, her short film, Afternoon Clouds, the story of a 70-year-old widow and her Nepali maid in Mumbai, became the first film from the institution — and India’s sole official selection — at Cannes in 2017. Her documentary, A Night of Knowing Nothing, the story of student unrest told through an epistolary romance, premiered at the festival’s Director’s Fortnight sidebar in 2021 where it won the Oeil d’or (Golden Eye) award.

Maisam Ali’s In Retreat, set in Ladakh

A note on the director describes her work as dealing with “that which is not easily visible, hidden somewhere in the folds of memory and dreams”. It unfolds “between minor, ephemeral feminine gestures where she tries to find the truth that makes up her practice.” All We Imagine As Light — as it’s evident from the trailer that was released recently — seems to be shot through with the same sensibility. A gentle exploration into the politics over gender and culture, it tells the story of Prabha (Kani Kusruti) and Anu (Divya Prabha), the two nurses united by their quest for love, and the despair it brings. While Prabha’s life is upended when she receives an unexpected gift from her estranged husband, Anu’s attempts to find a spot to be intimate with her boyfriend in the City of Dreams leads her nowhere.

The representation in recent years

The splash India — which was the official Country of Honour at Cannes in 2022 — is making this year comes after years of lull. Last year, we had Anurag Kashyap’s neo-noir, Covid-era crime thriller, Kennedy starring Rahul Bhat, Sunny Leone and Abhilash Thapliyal, at the Midnight Screenings’ Section. And Kanu Behl’s audacious outing Agra, the story of a young single call centre employee’s battle for personal space in a dysfunctional family, which debuted in the Director’s Fortnight Section. In the short film section, there was Nehemich, helmed by FTII alumni Yudhajit Basu, which shows how society isolates menstruating women.

The last time India had a strong presence at Cannes was perhaps in 2013, when five films were sent to various sections. They included Amit Kumar’s Monsoon Shootout (Midnight Screening); Bombay Talkies (an anthology of four short stories that depicted the influence films have on the lives of people from various strata of society, which was part of a Special Screening to mark 100 years since Dada Saheb Phalke’s Raja Harishchandra); Kashyap’s Ugly (Directors’ Fortnight); Ritesh Batra’s quietly assured The Lunchbox (Critics’ Week) and Ray’s Charulata (Cannes Classics).

Radhika Apte in Sister Midnight

In 2012, too, India had a substantial presence at Cannes with four films: Ashim Ahluwalia’s Miss Lovely (Un Certain Regard), Kashyap’s scintillating crime saga, Gangs of Wasseypur (Parts 1 & 2), Vasan Bala’s Peddlers (Critics’ Week) and Uday Shankar’s 1948 dance film, Kalpana (Cannes Classics).

The Indian lineup this year

The Indian lineup this year includes British-Indian filmmaker Sandhya Suri’s debut feature film, Santosh (Un Certain Regard section), starring Shahana Goswami, which tells the grim story of a newly-widowed woman who inherits her deceased husband’s job as a cop in the North Indian rural hinterland. Suri, who comes from Darlington in northeast England, drew on her father’s experience of migrating from India to the UK in the 1960s and settling in Britain, in I For India (2005), a compilation film that interprets and analyses his experience. Her short, The Field (2018), is about Laila (Mia Maelzer), a woman who works in the cornfields in a small agricultural town in Haryana, and her romantic escapades with her lover in the fields at night.

That’s not all. The two Indian films in the LaCinef student section include FTII student Chidananda Naik’s Kannada short, Sunflowers Were the First Ones to Know — the a story of an elderly woman who is sent into exile after she steals the village’s rooster — and British-South Asian Mansi Maheshwari’s short, Bunnyhood. Then, there are three films that will be screened in the independent sidebars.

Iran-born FTII graduate (Kapadia’s batchmate) Maisam Ali’s In Retreat (set in Ladakh, it's about a middle-aged man trying to return home to a mountain town for his brother's funeral), which is India’s first film to have made the cut for Cannes’ parallel section: called ACID (Association for Independent Cinema and its Distribution), it has been promoting independent cinema since the 1990s. Karan Kandhari’s debut feature Sister Midnight, a darkly comic love story set in Mumbai and featuring Radhika Apte in the lead, is the only Indian film selected at the Directors’ Fortnight. Bulgarian director’s short Konstantin Bojanov’s The Shameless, which features an Indian and Nepali cast of characters, and Ashok Vish’s Nightbirds — the short film about the mystical Tigmamanukan bird, co-directed by Maria Estela Paiso of the Philippines — will be screened, too.

While Santosh Sivan, the cinematographer-director known for films like Asoka (2001), Halo (1996) and The Terrorist (1998), will be felicitated for his achievements at the Pierre Angenieux Tribute ceremony, Shyam Benegal’s 1976 film, Manthan, starring Smita Patil and Naseeruddin Shah — a collaboration between Benegal and Verghese Kurien, the architect of India’s farmer cooperatives — will be screened under the Cannes Classics selection. Manthan’s print has been restored by Shivendra Singh Dungarpur’s Film Heritage Foundation. Malayalam parallel cinema pioneer G. Aravindan’s Thampu (1978) — an allegorical film about the transience of human relationships and the rootlessness of the marginalized — and Manipur auteur Aribam Syam Sharma’s 1990 Meitei-language film Ishanou (it won the 1991 Un Certain Regard) — about a woman who abandons her family to answer a spiritual calling — were screened in 2022 and 2023, respectively, after their prints were restored by the foundation.

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