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All We Imagine as Light

  • Film
  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
All We Imagine as Light
Photograph: Cannes Film Festival

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

Three battling Mumbai women come together in a drama that refuses to surrender to the gloom

This tough-but-touching Mumbai drama – somehow, the first Indian film to compete for a Palme d'Or since 1994 – paints an empathetic portrait of three women of different generations tiptoeing through a minefield of poverty, gossip and social pressure, each trying to grasp whatever happiness is available to them. It sets out with a Dardennes-y focus on the gritty realities of life in India’s most crowded city, before finding a hopeful romanticism in a lingering and optimistic final act. 

All We Imagine As Light opens with a panning shot of Mumbai’s poor sifting through mounds of rubbish. It’s a stark glimpse of life on the city’s fringes, a snapshot that female filmmaker Payal Kapadia asks you to hold in your mind. Because it’s with palpable strain that the three hospital workers at the film’s heart, women who will slowly find touching solidarity in each other’s company, strive to stay afloat in a city where life is rigged against them.

‘Even if you live in the gutter, you’re not allowed to be angry,’ a city dweller spits bitterly at one point. ‘People call this the spirit of Mumbai.’ 

Prabha (Kani Kusruti) isn’t angry, more disappointed. A diligent, taciturn nurse at a city hospital, she attends to her patients with a gentle care she maybe doesn’t afford herself. She shares a small flat with fellow nurse Anu (Divya Prabha), a fun-loving early thirtysomething whose meagre salary means she’s always behind on her rent. Prabha clearly cherishes her company and gives her another month to pay. Not for the first time, you suspect.

If there’s a sisterly bond in that cranky but indulgent dynamic, older hospital orderly Parvaty (Mumbai actress Chhaya Kadam) is an unofficial aunty figure – kindly and forthright, but deflated by the toils of her life. She’s from the countryside, a distance beyond the city limits. Facing eviction from her own apartment, she ponders going back. 

There’s hopeful romanticism in the lingering and optimistic final act

In a strange way, All We Imagine As Light comes from a similar place as Dev Patel’s recent wild-eyed action-thriller Monkey Man – albeit stripped of the neon gloss and bits where people get their faces smashed in with kitchenware. Both films show the harsh realities of life in Mumbai, but with a sense of universality that extends far beyond India. Life is a struggle for working people, and doubly so for women, when respect is denied them and the system contrives to crush their spirit. Parvaty deserves a place to live; Anu should be able to spend time with her boyfriend without having to disguise herself in a hijab.

Prabha is the story’s beating heart, though, and when a rice cooker is mysteriously delivered to her flat from Germany, the spectre of the husband who walked out on her a year previously for a new life in Europe begins to haunt her – and the film. 

There’s a message in this subplot. With or without a man in her life, Prabha’s options are minimal. A doctor’s awkward advances are rebuffed, but it’s still too late to stifle the gossipy murmurings.

But Kapadia, whose 2021 doc A Night of Knowing Nothing won a Cannes award, wants to liberate her battling characters and she finds a beautiful way to do it in a final reel that sends them on a roadtrip to Parvaty’s seaside village. ‘You can’t escape your fate,’ Prabha cautions the lovelorn Anu at one point. All We Imagine As Light offers the promise that you can at least stick two fingers up at it.

All We Imagine As Light premiered at the Cannes Film Festival.

Phil de Semlyen
Written by
Phil de Semlyen

Cast and crew

  • Director:Payal Kapadia
  • Screenwriter:Payal Kapadia
  • Cast:
    • Kani Kusruti
    • Hridhu Haroon
    • Chhaya Kadam
    • Divya Prabha
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