Cannes 2024 Review: ALL WE IMAGINE AS LIGHT, A Major Achievement of Indian Cinema

Grand Prix Winner of Cannes 2024 showcases the emergence of a new voice depicting underrepresented, working-class India from a woman's perspective.

Lead Critic; Brooklyn, New York (@floatingartist)
Cannes 2024 Review: ALL WE IMAGINE AS LIGHT, A Major Achievement of Indian Cinema

Payal Kapadia's soul-stirring docudrama, A Night of Knowing Nothing, delicately weaved together India's national politics, student protest movement, cinema, and its nostalgia in 2021. Her follow-up narrative film, All We Imagine as Light, proves that she is one of the most exciting new talents emerging in the current international cinema scene.

All We Imagine as Light starts with the documentary style footage of bustling Mumbai, as its citizens start the day in a 'city symphony' style intro, paired with voice-overs of actual workers who came to the big city, looking for work: street vendors getting ready for their businesses, people hanging on the back of trucks in a packed traffic, large crowds milling into commuter train stations, filling in on crowded train cars, talking, sharing music, taking a nap; it's a cacophony of sight and sound of the city of 22 million souls. With this routine, everyday chaos as a backdrop, we are introduced to Prabha (Kani Kusruti) and Anu (Divya Prabha).

Prabha is a practical, sensible head nurse working in a busy hospital. Her young roommate Anu work at the same hospital as a receptionist. Just like many people, they are transplants from the rural villages, who came to look for work in Mumbai.

Prabha hasn't seen her husband in years; he left right after their arranged marriage for factory work in Germany. Anu is a subject of a gossip at work, as she is constantly coming home late, prone to daydream at work, and is always short on money. She is secretly in love with Shiaz, a young Muslim man, a relationship that their parents don't approve.

A mild-mannered doctor takes an interest in Prabha, since he too is a transplant from the Kerala region and he can comfortably speak with her in Malayalam, as he still struggles with his Hindi at work. He walks her to the train station and shyly gifts her with his book of poems.

Nights take on a different air in the film, as the craziness of the daytime activities slow down and give the city’s inhabitants a slight reprieve. It affords some of the most lyrical scenes in the film; with the rain hitting the window in what seems to be the middle of the region's rainy season, Prabha reads the doctor's poetry with only her phone's flashlight, while sitting against the window as the train goes by outside.

After cleaning up the rain that leak on the floor one night, Prabha hugs the brand-new red rice cooker that her absent husband supposedly sent, perhaps meant as a farewell gift? Manwhile, Anu and her boyfriend frolick through the night market, sharing a passionate kiss in the dimly-lit underground parking lot of a mall.

Parvaty (Chhaya Kadam), a hospital cook, is about to get evicted from her home, in which she has been living in for more than 20 years, due to a shiny new development. Prabha tries to help her by contacting a lawyer. But because of Parvaty's lack of papers -- her late husband didn't leave any of the paperwork necessary to prove her residency -- she must resort to returning to her rural village in the south.

Fluidly switching from documenting what it's like living in bustling Mumbai to the melodrama of these three women with their emotional and economical insecurities, All We Imagine as Light comments on many social and political issues in India. The early voice-over suggests that at least one of the family members in each household from the country leaves home to go to work in Mumbai.

Anu wears a burqa to have a secret rendezvous with Shiaz in his predominantly Muslim neighborhood, which is indicative of Modi's right wing Hindu government making it harder to reconcile between Hindu and Muslim relationship. Parvaty attends worker's rights meeting at night and Prabha and Parvaty clandestinely throw stones at the billboard advertising near Parvaty's house, that reads, "Class is privilege reserved for privileged." Kapadia's tapestry of sensorial storytelling and sociopolitical commentary of Mumbai is on the level of Jia Zhangke's observations on changing Shanxi province he frequently depicts in his films.

In the third act of the film, Kapadia changes the film's tempo and breaks the physical, social, and political confinement of the city life for the women as Prabha and Anu accompany Parvaty to her home in rural India. A fantasy sequence, in which Prabha resuscitates a castaway found on the beach, tells the yearning of a woman who was cruelly abandoned, to imagine a better life. Shiaz, who followed Anu to the countryside, gets to be acknowledged in public without scrutiny.

All We Imagined as Light is a major work of contemporary Indian cinema. Along with Chaitanya Tamhane (Court, The Disciple), Kapadia showcases the emergence of new voices that are not by the Bollywood system, depicting underrepresented working-class India from a woman's perspective, in a still heavily-patriarchal society.

The film enjoyed its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. It won the Grand Prix 2024

Dustin Chang is a freelance writer. His musings and opinions on everything cinema and beyond can be found at

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All We Imagine as LightCannes 2024Grand PrixIndiaPayal Kapadia

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