A south Asian woman in a dark green top, with a light gray scarf around her hair, holds up a red-orange rice cooker.

‘All We Imagine As Light’ is a radiant, radical film about Indian sisterhood

The personal and the political are tightly wound in Payal Kapadia's history-making Cannes drama

From left, Kani Kusruti and Divya Prabha, play roommates in "All We Imagine As Light."

Still frame from "All We Imagine As Light"

The first Indian film to premiere in competition at Cannes since 1994, Payal Kapadia's All We Imagine As Light is a luminous portrait of Indian womanhood, and announces the arrival of a major dramatic voice. Kapadia—whose mesmerizing protest docu-fiction A Night of Knowing Nothing won the L'Œil d'or for Best Documentary at Cannes in 2021, but was never released in India—has quietly staked her claim as a radical anti-establishment filmmaker. And while her masterful latest, about the unlikely sisterhood between three working class Mumbai women, is gentler and more intimate than her incendiary documentary, it's told through similar dreamlike portraitures, and a similar eye for how India's political fabric nestles its way into each aspect of daily life. The result is a film that moves the needle forward, for depictions of women in Indian cinema, by leaps and bounds.

Before introducing her characters, Kapadia carries forward her documentarian sensibilities in her introduction of a monsoon-soaked Mumbai, with shots of crowded streets and energetic movement scored by brief anecdotes in voiceover. Disembodied voices, of poor workers from all over the country, set the scene for All We Imagine As Light by recounting either their Mumbai upbringings—in the local language, Marathi—or their migration from various villages—spoken in other dialects—as they wrestle with whether or not India's financial mecca can truly be their home.

Suddenly, Kapadia's protagonist appears—in slow motion, on a local train—as though she had been part of the story all along. Prabha (Kani Kusruti), a nurse from the southern state of Kerala, dons a blue sari as her professional uniform, and a look of resigned contentment as her personal one. However, her frayed hair and weary eyes tell a different story. Something is a amiss—we later learn that her husband has been living abroad for several years—a scenario exacerbated by the elusive behavior of her young roommate, fellow Keralite nurse Anu (Divya Prabha), who she learns has been sneaking around with a Muslim boy (both Prabha and Anu are Hindu).

A south Asian woman in blue, stands holding a silver pole, against a blue backdrop.

Kani Kusruti as Prabha in "All We Imagine As Light."

Still frame from "All We Imagine As Light"

Prabha's instinct to protect Anu from gossip (and from the implied consequences of her interfaith romance) collide with her own subdued despondency over having been abandoned; she cannot bring herself to be happy for, or even accept, Anu. Her husband hasn't called her in a year, and the sudden arrival of a present from him, in the form of a brand-new rice cooker, introduces questions of her worth as a woman in society. In contrast, a migrant doctor who admires her—and speaks to her in her mother-tongue, Malayalam, since he struggles to learn the more widely-spoken Hindi—writes her poems and cooks her sweets, romantic gestures right out of a storybook. However, her position as a married woman complicates her own affections.

Anu, meanwhile, is stuck between worlds as well. She's a soft but feisty character, whose subtle mischievous streak—accompanied by fluttering, jazzy piano notes—is considered unbecoming by her peers. Her lively spark is also endangered by the logistical complications of her blossoming romance with Shiaz (Hridhu Haroon), between her looming arranged marriage, the question of what to tell their respective families, or how to even find a place for physical touch, in a city where unmarried young adults live with roommates or families, and public spaces (and even hotels) are hostile toward intimacy. The moments they do manage to spend together, involving razor-sharp banter and the innocent giggles of sexual experimentation, feel like stolen delights.

An Indian woman in a dark red top stands in a field of brown grass.

Divya Prabha as Anu in "All We Imagine As Light."

Still frame from "All We Imagine As Light"

Once Mumbai is well-established as the claustrophobic, multi-faceted backdrop for this story, All We Imagine As Light takes a surprising tonal detour half way through its two-hour runtime. Prabha and Anu help middle-aged hospital cook Parvaty (Chhaya Kadam) move back to her coastal village, after she's forced out of her city apartment by a ruthless real estate company—a common facet of the city's widening class chasm. During the rest of the movie, the three women spend fun and deeply reflective moments by sprawling rural beaches, or in forest thickets and nearby ancient caves, as the dynamics between them bubble to the surface, revealing an uneasy portrait of friendship and found family. All the while, their stories influence each other in ways the movie refuses to put into words, allowing them to echo until Kapadia reveals a masterful sleight of hand. Just when it seems her stories might have grown too disparate, she weaves together, in the movie’s final act, each aspect of her movie's thematic and political purview with tender precision, resulting in a quiet crescendo buoyed by reconciliation.

While the film seems simple at the outset, Kapadia's presentation is practically reformist—for a country whose mainstream depictions of women can still be lacking—in the way it boldly threads the needle between the psychology and physicality of each character, as well as the spaces around them. She captures Prabha and Anu in both public and private moments, and makes the subtle differences between these modes a key part of her drama. This contrast illuminates both who they are and who they purport to be, a distinction defined not by dishonesty, but insecurity. The two women may be Kapadia's protagonists, but they're far from the "heroines" of Indian studio cinema. They have tempers, and short fuses. They're occasionally rude to one another, for reasons they might hide, or not even fully grasp themselves. Most importantly: even in the movie's more subdued scenes, their wheels are always turning, with thoughts and desires. But as much as the film is about this emotional psychology, it's an act of physical acceptance too, with casual depictions of breasts and body hair, and a shame-free frankness surrounding bodily function (urination, menstruation, even placentas) in ways seldom seen in Indian cinema. Accompanied by Dhritiman Das's twinkling score, which feels like music turned to starlight, the camera makes these women's lives, and their physical beings, feel radiant, and complete.

Rows of South Asian women dressed in blue sit in a theater, with a light shining in the background.

In "All We Imagine As Light," Mumbai, as a place, is defined by the color blue, which includes nurses' uniforms.

Still frame from "All We Imagine As Light"

In "All We Imagine As Light," Mumbai, as a place, is defined by the color blue, which includes nurses' uniforms.Kapadia re-teams with her A Night of Knowing Nothing cinematographer Ranabir Das to create a fascinating portrait of Mumbai, as a place defined by the color blue. Between the nurses' uniforms, the blue tarps commonly found covering slum dwellings, and the royal shimmer of the expensive glass skyscrapers that tower over them, the film's cool palette assists in defining not only the city's appearance and the bones of its class structure, but Prabha and Anu's relationship to it (especially when Anu wears warm tones, and feels rebellious in the process). However, once the characters leave the city for their beachside visit, any hints of blue become reminders of the world in which they exist, and are attempting to escape.Das's digital impersonation of celluloid texture (a trick he and Kapadia employed on their previous collaboration) is perhaps the movie's finest visual touch. Not only does the expert mimicry of fluttering film grain make each space feel alive—several introspective scenes cut away from the characters and have them speak over landscape shots of the city, situating them within their environments—but the re-creation of film halation is an important part of the movie's fabric. Light interacts with film in mysterious ways, causing glowing artifacts from light sources, often achieved through over-exposing celluloid. In mimicking this glow, light itself becomes a character, from the way it leaps off the screen when nestled within darkened spaces (especially in Das's high-contrast approach to Mumbai’s streets), to the way it creates halos when glistening off human skin, and crafts a sense of mysterious depth when reflected in teary eyes. It makes people, and the spaces between them, feel ethereal, making the silent moments they share feel electric—an imagined trick of the light.

All the while, the political subtext this light illuminates is just as pivotal to the movie as its interpersonal drama. Where A Night of Knowing Nothing was a direct confrontation of party politics—a chronicle of actual raids and protests, told through the fictitious story of a film student separated from her lover of a different caste—All We Imagine As Light extends those very themes, of the inseparability of the personal and the political, far away from political goings on. In a nation of growing Islamophobia, and fear mongering about "love jihad" (i.e. the forced conversion of Hindu women by Muslim men), the mere depiction of a Hindu woman establishing autonomy in her romance with a Muslim man, with whom she's on equal footing, is defiant. At one point, Anu can be seen donning a burqa to sneak into Shiaz's neighborhood, a loaded image that channels and strongly rebukes the aforementioned anxieties.

However, the film doesn't stop to pontificate at the camera, the way many modern Indian social dramas do. Instead, its tensions are aesthetically inherent. When Anu and Shiaz text each other (in Malayalam), their messages appear in giant orange font across the screen, which not only clashes wildly with the movie's blue palette, but serves as a constant reminder of India's saffron-colored Hindu nationalist politics—a looming threat to their romance. Similarly, an establishing shot in Shiaz's Muslim neighborhood is accompanied by the arrival of a bulldozer, whose purpose is never expanded upon, but which reflects the state of constant danger under which Indian Muslims (and those who love them) live, given the bulldozer's central place in Hindutva-led clearings of Muslim neighborhoods. Each aspect of Anu's relationship with Shiaz is laced with incendiary political implications. In a fleeting shot of a cave wall, the word "Azaadi" can be seen scrolled alongside the graffiti of young lovers' names—it means "freedom," both as political liberation, and in this case, Anu's personal freedom to love, and Prabha's need to be freed from love, and from the social constraints of marriage. In Kapadia’s thoughtful vision of Indian drama, these concepts are inextricably entwined.

As a bustling, humming Mumbai either hovers in the backdrop, or consumes the frame in its entirety, All We Imagine As Light becomes about the difficulty of loving places and people, and the implications of leaving them.

As a bustling, humming Mumbai either hovers in the backdrop, or consumes the frame in its entirety, All We Imagine As Light becomes about the difficulty of loving places and people, and the implications of leaving them. But at its core, it's about the multifaceted nature of Indian women's desires—personal, sexual, emotional, political—and the dynamic ways in which these lived experiences bleed into one another, and cross-pollinate between friends and loved ones; if life in India is a Matrix-like illusion, Kapadia thoughtfully unpacks its code, with a mind to rewrite it. Few scenes in recent years have been as stirringly, piercingly effective as those in which Anu and Prabha, whether through scant dialogue or complete lack thereof, express their desires either through acts of physical touch, or through dreamlike personal longing—on which the camera lingers until these vital images leap off the screen. It makes light so real you can touch it.

All We Imagine As Light has been acquired by Sideshow and Janus Films for U.S. distribution this year.

Published on May 24, 2024

Words by Siddhant Adlakha

Siddhant Adlakha is a critic and filmmaker from Mumbai, though he now lives in New York City. They're more similar than you'd think. Find him at @SiddhantAdlakha on Twitter