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All We Imagine As Light

Dirty gem from India bludgeons the beauty standards of both Bollywood and Hollywood, while refreshingly allowing women to find pleasure in sex - Grand Prix winner at the 77th Cannes International Film Festival


The camera peers up at the star-spotted night sky filtered through the canopy of a forest. Like a painting, the light of the stars seems to fit perfectly between the trees. Then Ranabir Das’s camera repositions to a close-up of a woman’s hairline, so close one can spot dandruff, before slowly revealing the full body of the squatting woman, Anu (Divya Prabha), peeing on the forest floor. For most filmmakers, such a reveal would be either humorous or charged with an inescapable embarrassment (synonymous with the action of urination in movies). For director Payal Kapadia, in her follow-up to her 2021 quasi-documentary A Night of Knowing Nothing, the moment is both beautiful and mundane. And, by treating the female body with such unkempt humanity, All We Imagine As Light challenges mainstream depictions of desi women.

Most of the 2024 Cannes Film Festival Grand Prix winner takes place not in the forests of Ratnagiri but in the ever-noisy and crowded Mumbai. Das uses a handheld camera that allows him to get close enough to his characters to smell them, giving the city both a shaky realist intensity (think of the aesthetic of journalism movies) and an emotional vulnerability reminiscent of an encounter on an urban subway system. The close proximity of the camera and character-driven films of Goran Stolevski (Housekeeping for Beginners, Of an Age) might be some of the best recent analogs to the feeling radiated here. Through the ever-close camera and other creative choices, Kapadia maximises the controlled emotions put forward by Kani Kusruti as Prabha, a nurse, and her roommate and colleague Anu. The two are in very different life situations. At least, it would appear to be so. Prabha has been estranged from her husband, whom she was arranged to marry, for quite some time when she receives an out-of-the-blue rice cooker from Germany, where he lives and works.

The much younger Anu has love problems of her own; her problems look a bit more traditionally romantic, though no less tragic, than her older roommate’s quest to be loved. Anu, a Hindu woman who dons colourful saris and a bindi, loves Shiaz (Hridhu Haroon), a young Muslim man. Their interfaith romance would be a non-starter for their families, so they keep their romance between themselves and the special kind of privacy that can only be found in large crowds. They struggle to find safe enough spaces to turn their flirting into something physical, someone or something always interrupts their attempts to move to the next base with one another. When they do finally find a place for their intimacy, in a cave just outside of the beach in the film’s last segment, their quenching of their mutual thirsts for each other — physically and emotionally — feels transcendent. They begin making love immediately after Shiaz confesses the feeling of peace Anu brings to his heart. The only diegetic music in the entire movie, an easy jazz piano that plays exclusively in romantic encounters between Anu and Shiaz, plays again during coitus and cuts out toward the end like a shared orgasm. As far as I could tell, the music cutting out doesn’t match with the usual cinematic signs of male orgasm and refreshingly avoids making the sexual act all about the experience of the man.

The scene after intercourse switches over to Prabha, the main protagonist of the film. She’s enjoying a brief respite of leisure time on the beach when the crowd before her pulls a drowning man from the sea. She begins CPR and the man is declared dead by the crowd before she, hesitantly, saves him with the kiss of life. That this scene would come right after Anu’s regenerating sexual intimacy with her lover says a lot about Kapadia and editor Clément Pinteaux’s aims with Prabha’s character journey and the obstacle placed before her. She fears the possibility of love. Earlier, this caused friction between the two roommates with the older woman calling the younger one a slut after being a bit playful with one of their co-workers; Prabha refused to believe Anu would be running around with a Muslim boy outside of the confines of a marriage (and unlikely one at that) and tells a gossiping co-worker that “she’s not that kind of girl.” After she decides to be intimate again — a decision symbolised with a kiss, with the entire ocean horizon as witness — she breathes a respite of life into a dying world.

This string of navigating the patriarchal world while maintaining self-dignity was set much earlier in the film and runs through the credits. Earlier, for example, in one of the best sequences, Anu purchases a burqa to help her and her amour sneak around but she almost immediately gets a text from Shiaz telling her their plan is off. She casts her pseudo-identity aside with a disappointing frustration: she will not be getting laid tonight and the burqa is now meaningless to this Hindu woman. The scene — and especially Kapadia’s denial of allowing the schema to work — complicates and reveals the way women, in the patriarchal cinema industries all around the world as well as in real life, find themselves forced to assume false identities to advance in their social position and, perhaps more relevant to Anu, to realise their pursuit of happiness. Men can be themselves; women must put on faces and costumes that allow them to more easily inhabit the world formed around men. And, in this scene, Anu must be her most authentic self.

The iconoclastic women of All We Imagine As Light bludgeon the stereotypical images of Bollywood and Hollywood. Kusruti and Prabha (the actor who portrays Anu, not Prabha the character) portray their characters with mean streaks and without shying away from normal bodily functions (like peeing). The characters do not always conform to the beauty standards set by the industry, nor do they feel the need to play by the standards. Kapadia allows her women to be fully human; and if that’s a radical statement, that might say more about the state of cinema than it does about this particular film.

All We Imagine as Light premiered in the Official Competition of the 77th Cannes International Film Festival. It won the Grand Prix (the event’s second highest prize).

By Joshua Polanski - 27-05-2024

Joshua Polanski is a freelance film and culture writer who writes regularly for the Boston Hassle and In Review Online, while also contributing to the Bay Area Reporter, and Off Screen amongst a varie...

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