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All We Imagine As Light: Cannes Film Review

Two indian women in the film All We Imagine As Light

Cannes Grand Prix winner All We Imagine as Light is a passionate story of what life and love look like in modern-day Mumbai.

Director: Payal Kapadia
Genre: Drama
Run Time: 114′
Cannes Premiere: May 23, 2024
Release Date: TBA

“Some people call this the city of dreams, but I don’t. I call it the city of illusions,” says one of the main characters in All We Imagine as Light while describing Mumbai, the city it’s set in. “You have to believe the illusion, or else you will go mad,” she continues. Throughout the movie’s run time, writer-director Payal Kapadia invites the audience to do exactly this.

As All We Imagine as Light goes on, we too join the illusion of the big city, along with the dream for a better life, that unites all the characters in the film.

All We Imagine as Light follows two nurses working in Mumbai: Prabha (Kani Kusruti), a senior nurse at the hospital, and her younger roommate Anu (Divya Prabha), who has recently moved to the city. Both women are troubled by their relationships. On one hand, Anu is pressured by her parents to marry a complete stranger while hiding her relationship with a Muslim man Shiz (Hridhu Harion). On the other, Prabha received a gift from Germany which she thinks might come from her now estranged husband. When Pranha’s friend Parvaty (Chhaya Kadam) is wrongfully evicted from her place, the women help her move back to her hometown, taking a trip to the beach, a place where illusions and dreams may become reality.

The portrayal of the city is also fascinating in All We Imagine as Light, which shows us a version of Mumbai many of us may be unfamiliar with – a city of working people which can at times feel chaotic and yet lonely at the same time. With its beautiful nocturnal shots, the film reminds us that there is so much more to Mumbai, and India overall, than what meets the eye. After all, how can this be the city of dreams when inequality and poverty are so rampant in the city? The movie does not necessarily want to give us an answer to this but we can make up our own mind in the matter.

Thanks to brilliant directing, it feels like we are there, too, experiencing the main characters’ routine, riding the same bus after work, cooking food in their apartment, and going to the hospital for their shift every day. Kapadia’s film also speaks to the multi-faceted Indian culture we don’t often see on the big screen. From showcasing lesser-known parts of Mumbai to portraying a Muslim man, a religion we don’t often associate with India despite it being the second largest in the country, All We Imagine as Light invites the viewers to immerse themselves into the reality of modern-day India. This is all the more impressive considering that it is the first time since 1994 that an Indian film is included in the official competition at Cannes.

An indian woman wears a blue dress in the underground in the film All We Imagine As Light
All We Imagine As Light (Petit Chaos, Luxbox Films / Cannes Film Festival)

The movie also spotlights strong female protagonists, as women who not only earn a living for themselves but also pace their own way in every aspect of their lives. Even in 2024, it is rare to see the male characters take the sidelines, relegated to the role of love interest which is often reserved for women instead. This film feels very refreshing in this sense, but I do wish the men had been explored a little more. Despite the very strong first half, All We Imagine as Light loses itself in the third act a little bit too much as it tries to wrap up all its narratives nicely and tidily when, in real life, things often remain messy and unsolved.

With its realistic tones and societal concerns mixed with a sense of magical realism and dream-like visuals, All We Imagine as Light feels like an ethereal – and perhaps even more hopeful – version of the critically acclaimed Salaam Bombay (1988) by Mira Nair. This film establishes Kapadia’s place as an exciting and visionary filmmaker in the future of Indian cinema. It also simultaneously solidifies what this future might look like outside of the typical image we have of filmmaking in India, which is typically only associated with Bollywood musicals.

All We Imagine As Light premiered at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Grand Prize for Best Film.

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