Jenna Mahale


All We Imagine as Light – first-look review

Payal Kapadia's first fiction feature is a gorgeous romance, concerning the lives of two contrasting nurses in present-day Mumbai.

Dating in India can often be fraught. There’s a caste system to contend with, broader religious segregation, the watchful eyes of your community and, of course, your family’s wishes, whether it’s an arranged marriage they want for you, or simply heterosexuality. In Payal Kapadia’s debut fiction feature – the first Indian film to play in Cannes’ official competition since 1994 – the former is plaguing Anu (Divya Prabha), a young Mumbaikar who works as a nurse at a local hospital. Anu spends her days behind a reception desk, encouraging visitors to have their husbands get vasectomies, texting Shiaz, a boy her parents haven’t picked out for her, and playing dreamily with various items in the office: taking a stethoscope to listen to the medical models and other items in her immediate vicinity, as well as her own heart.

In these languid, playful scenes, Kapadia sets up Anu as a headstrong romantic, a foil for her roommate Prabha (Kani Kusruti) – the head nurse at the hospital and the straight man to Anu’s eccentric dreamer. Unlike Anu, Prabha is married, and a little severe. She’s absorbed greater cultural dogma than her younger, more rebellious friend, and her elevated standing in their workplace means she feels more responsibility – and is under more external pressure – to uphold these values. “If you behave like a slut, people won’t respect you,” she tells Anu bluntly after rumours about her secret boyfriend begin to echo around the hospital.

Kapadia’s story reads as timeless for many reasons: this blurring of well-intentioned, cross-generational advice with a kind of emotional abuse, the plight of two young star-crossed lovers; and the glowing celluloid feel of each frame. Contemporary motifs are sparse, but references to actors like Amitabh Bachchan, brands like Reishunger, and the sight of smartphones situate the film in a recognisable present. The filmmaker’s renderings of desi girlhood are subtle but powerful, coming through in small details: the claw clips and medicine strips strewn about the apartment, tiny tattoos and even tinier, heart-shaped lingerie hardware, stolen moments under cover of darkness.

Like Kapadia’s feature debut – an intimate yet politically-charged documentary titled A Night Of Knowing Nothing – her latest is set during the monsoon season, a choice that bathes each scene of the film’s first act in an all-encompassing blue, and positions All We Imagine As Light as a successor in a longstanding canon of Bollywood romances. But this is no masala movie. That it is Shiaz’s Muslim faith that poses a wedge between him and Anu feels hyper-relevant at a time when the country’s Hindu nationalist prime minister is attempting to secure a third consecutive term by continually stoking Islamophobic sentiment. The film also approaches an anti-capitalist critique in its survey of Mumbai’s urban sprawl, speaking disparagingly of the seemingly endless construction of new tower blocks, and even going as far as having Prabha throw rocks at a luxury development in Lower Parel.

As an NRI (non-resident Indian), it is heartening to see these issues given cinematic airtime, not to mention the much-deserved arthouse treatment of Mumbai’s crowded shopfronts and neon Sanskrit signs. The last time I visited my family there, we went to see Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge – a musical romance epic that has screened daily at the Maratha Mandir theatre ever since its 1995 release and, as I was reliably informed, a makeout movie that provides ideal cover for sneaky young lovers. Peer onto the roadside at night and you’ll be able to see any number of kissing couples grabbing each other just as Anu and Shiaz do. In this way, Kapadia’s film precisely captures the realism of the particular romantic chaos native to Mumbai: a warm, heady place where desire, tradition, shame, and pride are in constant negotiation with one another.

Published 23 May 2024

Tags: Payal Kapadia

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