The film, which won the Grand Prix at Cannes, is a tender portrait of female friendship; it shows there are no quick fixes or happy endings to our unremarkable realities

Over the past weekend, Payal Kapadia made cinematic history by winning the Grand Prix at Cannes — the first ever for an Indian filmmaker — and joined the ranks of celebrated auteurs like Wim Wenders, Aki Kaurismäki, Jim Jarmusch and Nuri Bilge Ceylan. It’s historic for many reasons — only a handful of female filmmakers have had the honour, Kapadia now shares the coveted title with her own role models like the French director Claire Denis. It has been three decades since a Cannes competition entry from India entered the competition section (Shaji N Karun’s Swaham) but Kapadia’s film is internationally produced and her success is entirely self-made.

It’s an honour for the kind of filmmaking Kapadia champions — honest and probing — in both her short films and the non-fiction documentary, A Night of Knowing Nothing, that won her the L'Œil d'or prize in the Director’s Fortnight section in 2021. Screened at the end of the festival when competition entries from heavyweights were mixed-bag at best, All We Imagine As Light became an instant Cannes favourite as soon as it premiered on the French Riviera. It surprised critics and viewers alike with its tender portrayal of female friendships and an unvarnished look at life in Mumbai, far from its big city glamour.

European New Wave meets Indian arthouse

The film follows two Malayali nurses, the slightly older Prabha (Kani Kusruti) and Anu (Divya Prabha) who work in a hospital and share a flat. Prabha’s backbreaking work at the hospital tending to patients during the day is followed by her equally strenuous domestic chores in the evening. She is in a distant marriage — both emotionally and physically — wedded to a man who lives in Germany but hasn’t phoned her in over a year. There are few joys in Prabha’s life — her flatmate Anu and a pregnant cat that occasionally makes an appearance.

The foil to her melancholy is the younger Anu who, free from the shackles of her family’s watchful eyes in Kerala, is in love with a Muslim boy Shiaz (Hridhu Haroon) and would go to any extent (even purchasing a burqa to visit him) to steal time with him. Prabha’s mature resilience and Anu’s reckless youthfulness straddle the narrative as they provide an unembellished look into Mumbai’s immigrant experience. Prabha makes friends with Parvati (Chhaya Kadam), yet another immigrant woman from Ratnagiri, a significant migrant hotspot region in Maharashtra that supplies workers to Mumbai.

The film follows two Malayali nurses, the slightly older Prabha (Kani Kusruti) and Anu (Divya Prabha) who work in a hospital and share a flat.

The harsh white lights of domestic spaces, the blue tarpaulin that envelopes the city during the monsoon and the soul-sucking daily commutes on Mumbai locals — if there ever was a bittersweet postmodern love poem to Mumbai, Kapadia has captured it with her film. Its sensibilities are decidedly a mix of Wim Wenders and Adoor Gopalakrishnan. It blends the unglamorous realism of European New Wave cinema with the characteristic quietude and introspective narrative unravelling found in Indian arthouse films. Kapadia channels Wenders’ whimsicality in portraying the quotidian, punctuated by extended meditative silences reminiscent of Gopalakrishnan’s style.

An absent marriage, and an epiphany

Kusruti’s Prabha is the picture of sombre dignity while Divya’s Anu is a love-struck nurse consumed with existential dread about her future with her Muslim boyfriend. These women and many such women who make Mumbai, the city, form the movie’s narrative backbone. In frames filled with captivating vignettes of life in Mumbai, Kapadia tries to probe into the city’s psyche as much as she is into the migrant women who populate it.

Their little prejudices influenced by their social conditioning litter the narrative — Prabha picks up a fight with Anu realising she is in love (with a Muslim boy, no less). Perhaps bound by her duty to her non-existent husband or the taboo of falling in love while married, Prabha won’t entertain friendly advances from a doctor in her hospital who seems to genuinely like her. Anu, on the other hand, is preoccupied with the near-term future by narrowing her outlook to focus on her romance because of its precarious nature.

A generational portrait of Malayali nurses strikes a hopeful chord.

In the second half of the movie, the duo leaves Mumbai to travel with Parvaty to help her set up a new life in her hometown in a village in Ratnagiri after risking homelessness in Mumbai. There, unbeknownst to Prabha, Anu’s lover has followed her for a brief dalliance. As Prabha sits on a beach gazing at the endless horizon, a man, barely alive, washes ashore. Prabha, an efficient nurse, saves him and a sort of epiphany strikes her — what does it take to save herself from an absent marriage, what does it take to shore up some will to not spend her life waiting for her absent husband?

A narrative of feminist sisterhood

As it breezes towards its end, the film doesn’t leave the viewer with a sense of foreboding, rather this generational portrait of these women strikes a hopeful chord. In framing these women as their own people, Kapadia thrusts them with their own complexities, and a level of agency permissible within the confines of their circumstances. That there are no quick fixes or happy endings to our unremarkable realities becomes the film’s central message.

Ranabir Das’s camera captures a Mumbai that is exquisitely harsh, almost teetering on the edge of undesirability, because it is realistic at its core — the cold stainless-steel interiors of Mumbai locals, the sterile hospital environment, and the wet and humid nights of the streets. It is a melancholic Mumbai without filters where a monsoonal blue-hue of the overhead tarpaulins dominate the film’s colour palette, which subsequently switches from blue to red when the narrative shifts from Mumbai to Ratnagiri.

With its success at Cannes, Kapadia’s film heralds the arrival of an inimitable talent in Indian cinema, a much-needed one, with an empathetic eye firmly planted on the narratives of feminist sisterhood.

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