Cannes 2024 Review: A Sense of Defeat is Soulfully Evoked in Payal Kapadia’s Triumphant “All We Imagine as Light”

“You only seem to be real if you have papers,” Parvaty (Chhaya Kadam) confides in Prabha (Kani Kusruti) over dinner in “All We Imagine As Light,” eating at a restaurant in Mumbai that the former passed by countless times on her way back home in the 22 years she’s lived there, but never thought to stop inside. The food is good, but she won’t likely be back, facing eviction when she holds no physical deed to the property and it’s suddenly come up for question when developers are eager to tear down the building she stays in to build a new one in which she surely wouldn’t be welcome either with the salary she makes as a nurse. There may be plenty of people around to testify to her claim of residence, but they seem to be erased by the society that’s taken shape over generations where a human footprint means less and less as other forces have come into play and without title, Parvaty’s name means little.

It’s just one quietly devastating moment of many in Payal Kapadia’s magnificent drama in which the city can swallow you whole, particularly as a woman in India where the patriarchy is very much alive and well amongst other institutions that are in need of reform. There’s an inevitability about moving to a metropolis in the country when any financial prosperity is difficult to come by in the villages, yet to move away is to sever ties to families with deep regional roots and trade in blue skies and sandy beaches for smog-filled skylines where new buildings are added every day to block out the sun. Against that backdrop, Kapadia conjures a spellbinding tale of longing as she settles into K.R. Rahan Multi-Specialty Hospital where the writer/director trains her lens on three nurses — the elder Parvaty, the more recently accredited attendee Anu (Divya Prabha) and the head of the department Prabha, who receives the kind of simultaneously mundane and epic movie star introduction that defines the feeling of so much of the film when the camera finds her on a train to work with life passing her by in the background.

There’s some mild irony to having the three go about work that upholds the social safety net of the city while feeling as if they’re in free fall personally, with Parvaty wondering where she could live next while Anu has taken up residence in Prahba’s apartment to get away from conservative parents who would be even less thrilled to find out she’s taken a boyfriend Shiaz (Hridu Haroon) that she hasn’t even told Prahba about, defying wishes for an arranged marriage. Meanwhile, Prabha, who governs her own emotions with the same amount of discipline she applies to anyone who works under her, is unsettled by the arrival of a package from Berlin, likely from her husband who abandoned her years ago after she herself was fixed up to be wed by her parents, and while she holds strong as a pillar to Parvaty and Anu, the mere mention of her estranged partner who continues to hold her in limbo as much practically as psychologically when he never granted her a divorce is enough to unravel even the most stoic of people.

However, for all its trappings, “All We Imagine As Light” doesn’t envision the city as an obviously stifling place when the trio can create safe havens in each other’s company and eke out moments of reverie amidst the hustle and bustle at night markets and busy subway stops, though to look at Mumbai with all the energy in the streets where the masses gather is to recognize how little of it can rise to match the power of a consolidated few at the top. Part of the film’s bewitching sound mix are the voices of people that Kapadia never shows on camera, yet you see them vividly as they casually talk about their restlessness, saying things such as “You better get used to impermanence” and “Some people call this the city of dreams, but I call it the city of illusions,” and although the film is disarmingly romantic, particularly as Anu and Shiaz try to steal away some time for themselves, the unrequited love between those living in Mumbai and the city as it currently exists can stir up just as much passion when an urban center can promise so much and can offer so little in return. Where so many can be overlooked, Kapadia is able to see into every window, tenderly finding the soul in people and places losing touch with their humanity.

“All We Imagine is Light” will screen again at the Cannes Film Festival on May 25th at the Cineum Screen X at 1:45 pm and 9:30 pm at the Bunuel Theatre. It has been picked up for distribution in the U.S. by Sideshow.

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