“Everyone has at least one person in Mumbai.” “There’s work and money in Mumbai. Who would want to go back?” “You better get used to the impermanence.” Like poetry, the hushed voices of real Indian migrant workers pour gently over footage of a busy market glowing in the night in India’s largest metropolis, the spirit of the film’s two tender leads––Prabha and Anu, nurses in the city––evoked by documentary-style voiceover. 

Writer-director Payal Kapadia isn’t interested in the flashy world of Mumbai that gets so much global attention. Per its opening soundscape, All We Imagine as Light means to bask in the luminescence of life found among India’s lower classes, which means acknowledging the inequality and socio-economic injustice that defines their everyday as much as it means showcasing their intrinsic glow and dogged refusal to let the inalienable love, beauty, and camaraderie of existence be taken from them.

That is the plain, profound beauty in Kapadia’s second feature: life lived and loved through its most essential elements, friendship chief among them. And always at such a soft, approachable register, drama never spilling over into anxiety or fear so much as it remains calmly in the cup that holds it, easy to receive yet emotionally penetrating in its delicate delivery. 

Prabha (Kani Kusruti) and Anu (Divya Prabha) go through life together––nursing shifts, trips to the cinema, smelly placenta-passing at work, inevitable casual conflict, sweetly making up, men. They are modern women: living without men, not wearing burqas, throwing rocks at residential high-rise billboards that embrace class inequity (“Class is a privilege. Reserved for the privileged,” it reads). Through Kapadia’s eyes and cinematographer Ranabir Das’ lenses, there’s a subtle glow to them and everything they touch, visible and invisible. And to the filmmakers’ credit, it doesn’t exist in this particular form separate from their collaborations, Das having only shot one short outside of his Kapadia features.

The mood is perfectly synchronized through the music Kapadia chooses: feathery, trickling piano from Ethiopian composer Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou, whose work hit cinematic center stage after Garrett Bradley soundtracked all of Time to her knee-weakening, heart-opening compositions. The film not only employs this music well––it’s used sparsely and at such moving moments that it communicates more than mood. In one scene there’s a magical sense that the rolling keys are the sound Prabha’s heart makes, if one could actually hear it. That’s not the only magical realism Kapadia dips her toe into, even if it’s just a dip.

All We Imagine as Light marks the first Indian film in Cannes competition in more than 30 years and the country’s first-ever Grand Prix win, Kapadia already leaving an indelible mark with her second film and narrative debut. For those that swooned and wept their way through the piercing lightness and crushing darkness of her first feature, A Night of Knowing Nothing––an experimental documentary that mosaically unveiled galvanizing student revolutions against the caste system across universities in India and the severe rise of right-wing student militias that took it upon themselves to suffocate the protests––Kapadia’s second feature doesn’t have that brilliant avant-garde identity, nebulous essence, provocative unwinding, or scintillating flourish(es). Not that it should, of course.

Art is often best served as an expectation disrupter, not a familiar face. And Kapadia has only had to make two films to prove how deeply she understands that, both in her stories and career choices. For as explosive a first feature as A Night of Knowing Nothing proved, Kapadia’s choice to pivot into quiet, primarily Euro-realist fiction shows she’s not just good at or interested in one thing. Rather, like the best of the best, her greatest directorial skill is thoughtful consideration, creative discernment tailored to the story she’s telling. She has a preternatural command over the language of cinema that she can apply to completely disparate projects, be it amorphous documentary or straight-forward fiction. (It’s worth noting that both films incorporate either in unique ways.)

All We Imagine as Light may not transcend form or style the way Kapadia did in her first feature––perhaps the only thing they share is dreamy titles––but that doesn’t make it any less transcendent. If anything, this is a more universal transcendence, one predicated on the strength of being together, the innate spark in people, and the potential we all have to see everyone as someone. What A Night of Knowing Nothing had in provocation and expression, All We Imagine as Light offers in contemplative thought and a restful, nurturing soul. And the end is one of the more lovely experiences Cannes had to offer across all sections. You won’t want to miss it. 

All We Imagine as Light premiered at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival and will be released by Janus Films and Sideshow.

Grade: B+

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