All We Imagine As Light Review: A Genuine Tour De Force That Has Nary A Blemish

All We Imagine as Light competing for the Palme d'Or at the 77th Cannes Film Festival, premiered at the Grand Theatre Lumiere on Thursday night

May 24, 2024 - 11:00
All We Imagine As Light Review: A Genuine Tour De Force That Has Nary A Blemish

Payal Kapadia's All We Imagine As Light is all that we imagined it would be - a deceptively simple, wonderfully tender, uncannily terse (despite its nearly two-hour runtime) and deeply human study of the workaday struggles of outsiders in a city that never sleeps, where repose is an elusive thing. So, more than dreams, Mumbai drowns people in the illusions that it thrives on.

All We Imagine As Light, a story of thwarted loves, dashed aspirations, stolen moments of fulfilment and manifestations of suppressed urges, is crafted with an unfailing eye for detail, shot and edited masterfully, embellished with a minimalistic, evocative score and bolstered by a clutch of impeccable performances.

The film follows four ordinary citizens of Mumbai - three from Kerala, one from a Maharashtra village that stands by the sea - who labour quietly and persistently to vent their desires and frustrations in a chaotic, noisy and tough environment that probably takes away far more than it gives.

Prabha (Kani Kusruti) and Anu (Divya Prabha) are nurses in a Mumbai hospital. The two share a dwelling. They perform an essential service but how essential are they as individuals in the city.

Prabha hasn't spoken with her absent husband for over a year. The man left India immediately after the wedding never to return. The phone calls have ceased but Prabha's yearning for reconnection lingers.

The much younger Anu, whose parents are hunting for a match for her in Kerala, is in love with a Muslim boy, Shiaz (Hridhu Haroon), a fact that she conceals from Prabha as she searches for places where she can be alone with the boy.

The two women are frequently framed against speeding trains (one of their key modes of transport) or are seen making their ways around amid the pitter-patter of Mumbai's monsoon rains (a defining seasonal feature of the city).

The blobs of light from residential towers visible from the window of Prabha and Anu's room are punctuated by equally pronounced swabs of darkness that hang around the nocturnal glow of the cityscape.

The first time that Prabha appears on the screen, she is in a moving train. As she stands close to the door, she appears suspended in midair. That reflects her emotional state - she is married but alone, caught in the frenetic flow Mumbai and yet not quite into its dizzying rhythm.

A rice cooker in a box addressed to her lands at her doorstep. It is an unsolicited gift from her estranged husband. It triggers feelings that had gone dormant.

Anu's life has its share of brightness, but her inter-faith affair is a constant source of worry for both her and her lover. Their secret meetings - they can take place only after Anu has finished her work at the hospital - are brief but intense.

Hospital employee Parvaty (Chhaya Kadam) is another important figure in this story of uprooted souls looking for an anchor. Parvaty's home is under threat of demolition. She has lived there for over two decades but has no papers to prove her ownership. A builder wants to evict her.

Parvaty and Prabha throw stones at a hoarding announcing a new real estate project. But there is little else that they can do. Parvaty is reconciled to her fate. Prabha continues to cling on to the life that she has built in a city that can never be hers although she spares no effort to fit in.

One voice, off-camera, says that you have to believe in the illusions that Mumbai offers. If you don't, you might go mad. Neither Prabha nor Anu intends to trip over the edge that is never more than a step away. Between what life has given them and what they expect from it exists a yawning chasm. They have to skirt around it at all cost.

If you do not have papers, you have no existence, Parvaty says to Prabha during a farewell meal in a small Chinese eatery which she passed by every day on her way to work but never ever entered. You can vanish and nobody will notice, she adds. Parvaty's personal predicament has resonance beyond her life.

An off-camera Gujarati woman who, in the opening moments of the film, informs us that she has been in the city for some 23 years but still cannot bring herself to call it home. The feeling that she might have to leave never goes away, she says.

Prabha and Anu accompany Parvathy to her seaside village, where she has a home that she can call her own. The nurses are greeted by the music of the waves, the expanse of the sea and the beach, and the soothing, uninterrupted blueness of the sky.

With the cacophony of the metropolis behind them, if only temporarily, the two Malayali nurses discover spaces within, and without, their hearts that were out of bounds within the four wall of their modest house and their workplace in Mumbai.

They converse in Malayalam - the film also has lines in Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati and Bengali - but Prabha, having lived in Mumbai much longer than her roommate, is at ease with Hindi. Real connections are hard to establish.

All We Imagine As Light is astute and intrinsically intuitive. It deftly balances the emotional and the cerebral, the deeply felt with the artfully objective, and the acerbic and the assertive. The power of the film lies as much in the intelligence at its core as in the empathy that it demonstrates for its characters.

Its precision of purpose and execution is accentuated manifold by the principal actors. Kani Kusruti is, like the film, hypnotic. Divya Prabha sparkles as the woman whose passion collides with problems that she cannot sidestep.

And Chhaya Kadam conveys with striking skill the resignation and wisdom of somebody who survived the city for decades without finding a toehold in it.

All We Imagine as Light is a portrait of a city and the rhythms of life that struggle to sustain themselves in the face of unending, often unpleasant, unpredictability. It is a genuine tour de force that has nary a blemish.

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