Vividly sensory and whisper-like, Payal Kapadia’s sophomore feature,” All We Imagine As Light,” has the soul of a pure, perfectly distilled prayer. At once both an elegy and ode to the city of Mumbai in all its frantic, grimy splendour, it is haunting and alluring, exerting the grip of a strange, heady fever dream on the viewer. “This isn’t a city of dreams but of illusions. You have to believe in its (Mumbai’s) illusions, or you’ll go mad”, one among the panoply of voices spattered across languages remarks in the opening sequence.

Setting up immense promise right at the start, the sequence weaves myriad accounts of Mumbai’s residents as the camera winds down the city’s streets and frenzied marketplace and eventually hops onto a train, where we first meet the two central characters. Many of the citizens are migrants from other states and may have been in the city for more than twenty years, yet some balk at calling it home.

At any moment, the spell of shelter can break, as it does for a character in the film. Existence feels evanescent, and the swift erosion of time is so constant that, as someone says, “You better get used to impermanence.” While a documentary-tinted spirit is immediately established and sustained to varied degrees over the long haul, Kapadia’s ever-astonishing gifts for playing around with temporal fluidity uniquely juxtapose many states of being. The film’s two Malayali heroines are caught up in a mesh of circumstances that occupy opposing ends of time-frames.

Prabha, a senior nurse (Kani Kusruti) in a grungy local hospital, hasn’t been in touch with her husband for over a year or more. She can barely recall with particularity when he had last called. It had been an arranged marriage, with him leaving for Germany not long after they tied the knot. She cannot quite forsake the knot of her situation, despite her long-distance relationship with her husband gradually fading as the months flew by.

She may be wiser to treat it as an episode from the past but she continues to hold onto it, believing it to be still defining her present. That she hopes he’d return someday and take her with him isn’t something she thinks she can shake off. She is hesitant to step into a new relationship even if her heart pines for it. The hold of tradition and norm is firm even as her loneliness quietly singes the screen in Kusruti’s performance, which culls extraordinary, poignant eloquence from repressed, unarticulated, held-back aches.

All We Imagine As Light (2024) ‘Cannes’ Movie Review
A still from “All We Imagine As Light” (2024)

Meanwhile, Prabha’s younger roommate and a junior nurse at the same hospital, Anu (Divya Prabha), is also in a difficult love situation, albeit of a different kind. While there’s mounting pressure from her parents back home on her get married, with them religiously sending her endless lists of potential grooms, Anu is pursuing a fervent, clandestine romance with Shiraz (Hridhu Haroon, an exquisite, refreshing embodiment of male vulnerability and tentativeness). The fact that he is Muslim and she is Hindu laces their relationship with the forbidden in India’s increasingly divisive sociopolitical climate. Censure and disapprobation would mark the romance, Anu fears. There’s not even space for intimacy.

In a later scene, she confesses to a trepidation over the future, which she feels is heaving on her. Therefore, in a clever juxtaposition, just as Prabha’s present is burdened by what should recede as her past, Anu’s predicament is shaded by the looming uncertainties of the future. An unstable future also hovers for the third woman in the tale, the older Parvaty (an indomitable Chhaya Kadam), who works as the hospital cook. Rapid, relentless gentrification casts a shadow over the city, with Parvaty being among the score of casualties poised to lose their homes all of a brutal sudden.

The dwelling offered by the cotton mill where her late husband worked and which itself has gone out of order stands to be demolished, making way for the countless high-rises enveloping the whole city. Parvaty has no official documents with which to prove her right to her housing. Without papers, however, she can make no claim. The political aside here is unmistakable and sharp. With the parallel strand of displacement, Kapadia effectively underlines the pervasive precarity and transience of the lives of the working class from cities and themselves they’ve serviced and helped grow over multiple generations.

The mastery of “All We Imagine As Light” is in how it compresses and condenses an epic paean to the city in the smallest of gestures and the most intimate of moments. In between, Kapadia inserts full-bodied snatches of stylistic inventiveness. Her well-established affinity for experimenting with sounds props up in an early, absolutely brilliant scene where a stethoscope transmutes a spring of interiorities. Mundane objects in the film are mischievously overlaid with rich metaphorical capacity.

Slowly, you are seduced into the world of the film that’s both despairing and caressing. Clément Pinteaux’s fluent, nimble editing endows the film with the gentlest of rhythms. An unusual iteration of the multi-generational saga, it melds points of stasis with a thrust for flux. The women in the film may seem constrained, confused, and groping in the dark, but Kapadia lends each one of them a grace of transition. It is when, one day, a red rice cooker arrives for a surprised Prabha, seemingly from her husband from Germany, a profound shift wells up within her. She may have buried the thought of her husband despite him continuing to persist as a major, inveterate influence in her life. The swanky rice cooker, an oddity in her modest flat, summons a disruptive force.

All We Imagine As Light (2024) ‘Cannes’ Movie Review
Another still from “All We Imagine As Light” (2024)

All three women in the film display a spirit that refuses to easily surrender to sobering circumstances. Kapadia’s film instantly joins the ranks of the rarest bunch of contemporary Indian films that truly understand and respect the unceasing agency embedded within womanhood without feeling any need to drum up heroic beats. “All We Imagine As Light” mines grit and verve in everyday acts; the supposed commonplace gains complex layers wherein hidden or repressed modes of self-identification can be suddenly activated. While Prabha is guarded and retiring, Anu is more animated, adventurous, and unrestrained.

In Divya Prabha’s hands, Anu’s free-spirited friskiness is a delight to watch, but the actress also cannily brings dread, anguish, and deep vulnerability just about close to the surface. The seeming high stakes of the situation never become entirely invisible. However, as fraught and terrifyingly precarious things are, Kapadia’s featherlight, tender touch confers all her characters with resilience, dignity, and the rudimentary right to dream, or rather out-dream despair that may feel overwhelming. Far away from home, the film is a loving portrait of people seeking and building a sense of family in their friends.

The understated yet strong sisterhood that binds the three women together across several generations imparts an emotional magnanimity to the film. They have their fits of anger and annoyance with each other but ultimately lean on one another. Pockets of happiness may be spare and elusive, but they can be found. The unfussy, unvarnished portraits of womanhood in “All We Imagine As Light” break fresh ground in Indian cinema.

Singularly imagined and thrillingly modern, “All We Imagine As Light” has a patina of melancholy, but ultimately, there’s more than a smidgen of hope in its bones. The blue monsoon light that shrouds the cramped city is switched with lustrous, vibrant colors in the film’s second hour when the women take a trip to the seaside, where its realist fabric ruptures to accommodate and fully embrace its subterranean undercurrents of mystery. As much as DP Ranabir Das captures the manic claustrophobia of Mumbai in its sense of closing in on its people, his camera also enlivens the liberating boundlessness of this section that moves in an entrancingly surreal direction. The effusive specks of radiance, often spilling from the edges of the frames, are a miracle.

A sun-dappled lovemaking scene is staged so spellbindingly it feels like a holy act to witness. This restful break from routine bursts into an astonishing, unforgettable pre-climactic encounter between Prabha and a stranger where time collapses, and epiphanic, cathartic possibilities finally get utterance. This incredible scene is one for the ages. Kani Kusruti is absolutely, crushingly spectacular in this scene, infused with echoes of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s work. Between this film and Shuchi Talati’s “Girls Will Be Girls,” which premiered at Sundance earlier this year, Kusruti has two of 2024’s best performances. Wrapping up to Dhritiman Das’s gorgeous music and a heart-stopping ethereal final shot with a shot at reconciliation, “All We Imagine As Light,” an utterly sublime and irreducible gem, heralds Payal Kapadia as the brightest and the most transfixing star on India’s horizon.

A co-production between France-set Petit Chaos (Thomas Hakim and Julien Graff) and India’s Chalk and Cheese Films (Zico Maitra), All We Imagine As Light premiered at the Cannes Film Festival 2024.

This review was also published on OTTPlay.

All We Imagine As Light (2024) Movie Links: IMDb, Rotten Tomatoes, Wikipedia, Letterboxd
All We Imagine As Light (2024) Movie Cast: Kani Kusruti, Divya Prabha, Chhaya Kadam, Hridhu Haroon
All We Imagine As Light (2024) Movie Genre: Drama | Runtime: 1h 55m
Where to watch All We Imagine As Light

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