Cannes 2024 review: All We Imagine as Light (Payal Kapadia)

“A film that is resilient, triumphant and truly unforgettable, both in its intentions and how they are manifested on screen.”

It has been exactly thirty years since an Indian film has premiered in competition at the Cannes Film Festival, when Swaham by Shaji N. Karun walked away empty-handed at the 1994 edition. This inexplicable dry spell has now been broken by Payal Kapadia, an exciting voice in contemporary global cinema, who makes her narrative feature-length debut with All We Imagine as Light, a powerful and evocative social realist drama. In this film, the director tells the story of two nurses who grow weary of their humdrum existence in modern Mumbai, and in an effort to reconnect with their culture (and themselves), they travel to a rural area, which serves as the location for some intense introspection as they work through their emotions and come to terms with certain existential quandaries. Over the course of a few days, they reflect (both individually and together), and come to see the world in a very different light. A film that takes a distinctly unfurnished and direct approach to its central themes, but which is also not entirely averse to infusing its story with a sense of enchantment, All We Imagine as Light is a profoundly beautiful, complex text that touches on some unique ideas and examines life under a subtle but moving lens.

One of the first pieces of dialogue we hear in this film is a brief conversation amongst disembodied voices as the director provides establishing shots of Mumbai – and they each remark on the concept of home, in its various forms. Throughout All We Imagine as Light, the director is intent on asking a very simple question: how do we define our home? The film focuses on two women who are comfortable, but not quite at ease, in the harsh urban landscape of this big city, and truly only start to feel like themselves once they take the journey out of Mumbai and into the countryside, with these rural surroundings revealing more about them than anything that could be found while in the city. This is supported by the secondary theme of impermanence, another source of discussion that Kapadia infuses into the narrative, exploring how these characters handle the growing sense of unease they find from a relatively banal existence that helps pay the bills and makes them valuable members of society, but doesn’t enrich their lives or give them any sense of purpose, which they only start to realize they craved once they detach themselves from the mundanity of their daily routine. In the process, the director presents subtle but moving details of the often challenging relationship between tradition and modernity, two seemingly oppositional concepts that the protagonists have to learn to reconcile before finding the elusive sense of inner peace and purpose that they desperately crave.

All We Imagine as Light is a film about the fragility of existence, told through the perspective of two women trying to find their place in the world. Kapadia’s main intention with this film was to explore the lives of these two characters, who represent a very specific kind of demographic, the nearly anonymous working-class collective that is mostly comfortable with their place in life, but still yearns for more from it. There’s a fragility that the director infuses into the film, particularly in how she adds nuanced conversations around contemporary femininity within India into the story. This is not necessarily a film in which the underlying aims are clear from the outset, and we only start to see these deeper themes being revealed as the story progresses. We find that it has dual functions, acting as both a profoundly moving examination of femininity through the relationship between two women that have formed a strong bond, as well as an exploration of the sometimes challenging journey that comes when someone tries to explore their identity. The film is anchored by two extraordinary performances by Kani Kusruti and Divya Prabha, whose subtle but evocative work is spellbinding, and All We Imagine as Light becomes a truly extraordinary depiction of this slightly unconventional sisterhood that reflects themes much broader than the unembellished story may initially suggest.

Told through episodic vignettes of their physical and psychological journey between these two places, and where the simplest of cues reveal an abundance of complex ideas, the film presents a moving portrait of these women. Acting as a poignant and quiet meditation on femininity that spends as much time and effort exploring the challenges they face as it does celebrating their growing confidence and ability to step out of their comfort zone, the film prioritizes many very striking ideas. The bittersweet, tender tone hints at something deeper and more profound lingering beneath the surface, and the gentle but steadfast approach to showing the protagonists’ journey to self-realization is stunning. Built on a foundation of poetic tenderness and told through the lens of the most striking kind of social realism, All We Imagine as Light is a truly beautiful tribute to a demographic that is often rendered invisible in the media. The simple camera work paints a vivid portrait of these urban and rural landscapes, while the performances showcase the complex and fascinating individuals who reside within them, leading to a film that is resilient, triumphant and truly unforgettable, both in its intentions and how they are manifested on screen.