Poet Nissim Ezekiel deemed Mumbai as “unsuitable for song as well as sense”. In Payal Kapadia’s terrific All We Imagine As Light, the barely functional megapolis makes even dreaming a challenge.

Kapadia’s debut feature is a poetic exploration of a decidedly unromantic city. In Mumbai’s warrens, on its congested streets, and between its higgledy-piggledy structures, hard-working migrants move from one day to the next, surviving if not quite thriving, looking for love, meaning and grace.

Malayali nurses Prabha (Kani Kusruti) and Anu (Divya Prabha) work at the same hospital and rent a house together. Prabha – cautious, pensive and somewhat defeated – watches over the younger and less inhibited Anu as would a protective sibling. Prabha’s empathy for the Maharashtrian hospital attendant Parvaty (Chhaya Kadam) doesn’t always extend to Anu, especially after Prabha learns that Anu is seeing Shaiz (Hridhu Haroon).

The predominantly Malayalam-language production is among the titles competing for the Cannes Film Festival’s top prize, the Palme d’Or. All We Imagine As Light is the first Indian movie to be selected for the section in 30 years, and the first by an Indian female director.

Divya Prabha in All We Imagine As Light (2024).

Kapadia’s previous short films and the docufiction A Night of Knowing Nothing (2021) had elliptical elements. In her latest project, Kapadia opts for a linear, docudrama approach with seamless segues into fantasy. The film joins a healthy cinematic tradition about Mumbai’s effect on its long-suffering residents. All We Imagine As Light is equally reminiscent of such magic realist immigration-themed productions as Mati Diop’s Atlantics (2019).

In Atlantics, which also competed for the Palme d’Or, the Atlantic Sea separating Senegal from Europe is a graveyard of aspiration. Young lives swallowed up by the sea return as ghosts, visible only to the ones who loved them.

All We Imagine As Light too evokes connections between water and magic. Kapadia’s beautifully filmed screenplay is a triumph of place and mood, with the tranquil rhythm of a flowing river.

A rice cooker meant for Prabha is like a message in a bottle, bringing along memories and uneasiness. There are allusions to birth (as well as an adorable pregnant cat). A trip to Parvaty’s coastal village is a turning point for Prabha and Anu.

All We Imagine As Light (2024).

The women’s inter-twined journey is dunked in blue. Rather than the blackened sludge that is known as the Arabian Sea, the shade associated with the tarpaulin that covers under-construction buildings is a recurring element in the excellent production design by Yashaswi Sabharwal, Piyusha Chalke and Shamim Khan. Blue is everywhere – in the nurses’ uniforms and the decorations in the tiny apartment inhabited by Prabha and Anu.

A melancholic air clings especially to Prabha, who is stuck in a loop regarding her marital ties. A gift from her husband (Anand Sami) sets her off in ways she cannot yet comprehend. Another gift, of poems, by her colleague Manoj (Azees Nedumangad), pricks the sensitive Prabha. For Anu, her inter-faith romance with Shaiz is the source of release as well as worry.

The general Mumbai cacophony includes the pitter-patter of rain and the clattering of trains. Unseen voices express sadness about a city that provides a livelihood but seemingly little else.

Mumbai has stolen time from me, somebody says. You have to believe in the “spirit of Mumbai” illusion in order to stay sane, another remarks.

Kapadia’s approach is contemplative instead of being scolding, intimate rather than broad. All We Imagine As Light takes its place as one of the most acutely observed films about a rapidly changing city. Ranabir Das’s camerawork – quiet and yet sharp – captures Mumbai’s cluttered spaces, vertiginous buildings and chaotic streets.

Kapadia’s cast ably execute her humanistic vision. While Parvaty’s predicament is secondary to the Prabha-Anu equation, the redoubtable Chhaya Kadam has some lovely scenes of unlikely bravado. Kani Kusruti is superb, her expressive performance suggesting depth, unexpressed feeling and a lifetime of regret.

Mumbai, which thrives on anonymity, lets the women be. But is that enough? “I cannot leave the island; I was born here and belong,” Nissim Ezekiel wrote in Island. The gentle rebels of All We Imagine As Light think otherwise, lending Kapadia’s immersive narrative the sense of an ending as well as a beginning.

All We Imagine As Light (2024).

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