From faraway Paris, the celebrations in India that have followed Payal Kapadia’s historic win at the Cannes Film Festival for All We Imagine As Light can only appear somewhat bewildering.

“It feels very weird,” said Kapadia, who has stayed on in the French capital to fix the film’s sound design and music. “All this scrutiny is not my style.”

On May 25, 38-year-old Kapadia’s debut feature won Cannes’s second- highest award, the Grand Prix. She is the first Indian to receive this honour.

All We Imagine As Light revolves around two Malayali nurses working in a hospital in Mumbai. Prabha (Kani Kusruti), who has a troubled marriage, gets involved in the housing woes of the hospital cook Parvaty (Chhaya Kadam). Anu (Divya Prabha) embarks on a relationship with a Muslim man (Hridhu Haroon).

Kapadia and her team spent the weeks before the May 23 premiere frantically completing the movie. The closing ceremony on May 25 was followed by an after-party that involved dancing and encounters with filmmakers Kapadia admired, from Miguel Gomes, who also won an award at Cannes, to Hirokazu Koreeda, who was part of the jury that gave her the Grand Prix.

“Exhaustion has now set in,” Kapadia told Scroll. “We have been sleeping a lot.”

A week is a long time in the life of an independent filmmaker. In the seven days since Cannes wrapped up, Kapadia has gone from being a well-regarded upcoming talent in arthouse cinema circles to a national treasure.

Starting from Prime Minister Narendra Modi, praise has gushed forth for Kapadia. She was the first Indian woman to be selected for the prestigious Competition section at Cannes. Her film was the first Indian title in 30 years to be nominated, after Shaji Karun’s Swaham.

There is a Kafkaesque absurdity to the encomiums. Among those who sent their congratulations was the Film and Television Institute of India, from where she graduated in 2018. In 2015, FTII had initiated disciplinary measures against Kapadia and other students when they went on a 139-day strike to protest the appointment of Bollywood actor Gajendra Chauhan as the institute’s chairman.

Legal proceedings in the case filed by the Pune Police against the students continue. Kapadia may have to return to India later in June to depose in the case. Meanwhile, Gajendra Chauhan told PTI: “Congratulations to her and I feel proud that I was the chairman at the time when she was doing the course there.”

Among the issues that fuelled the protests was an increase in enrolment fees. In a press statement on Friday, Kapadia said, “Affordable public education has been instrumental in making this possible… Unfortunately, public institutes are becoming more and more expensive nowadays. These spaces can only remain relevant and can encourage discourse if it remains accessible to all. If it becomes an elitist space like various public universities have become over many years, it will be useless to the nation.”

Kapadia does not regret her participation in the protests – rather, it moulded her in much the same way as had the film school’s rigorous curriculum, she told Scroll.

Kapadia got into FTII’s directing course in 2012 on her second attempt. “FTII changed the way I looked at cinema,” Kapadia said. “It was here that I started thinking about how I wanted to make films.”

The curriculum requires students to keep working on projects, said Ranabir Das, who closely collaborates with Kapadia. Das is the cinematographer and co-producer of All We Imagine as Light. “The curriculum is very well thought-out,” he added. “Of course, everybody will have a different experience, depending on which year they are in.”

Among FTII’s strengths is the wide variety of pupils from across the country, as well as the number of assignments.

“For instance, we would have to make a long-take film, which forced us think about time and movement,” Kapadia said. “We would make small films all the time. We had workshops in which we did different exercises. Every exercise in its restrictions and possibilities taught you something. The form that I use a lot now, where the voice isn’t always matching the images, came out of an exercise I did at FTII.”

It was while thinking of a subject for her graduate film that Kapadia came up with All We Imagine As Light. A nurse had been coming home to attend to her ailing grandmother, while her father had to be hospitalised for a while.

“I was shuttling between these two medical situations,” Kapadia recalled. “When you are a student, you are full of curiosity about everything. Hospitals are anyway a very interesting space. I was chatting with everybody and trying to see if I could make a short film. As time went by, I felt it could be a longer film.”

Divya Prabha in All We Imagine As Light (2024). Courtesy Petit Chaos/Chalk & Cheese Films.

Kapadia had also been thinking about Mumbai – the city of her birth, a magnet for migrants, a madhouse that makes dreaming almost impossible. “I was very interested in the women who come to Bombay to work and the contradictions of the space that is Bombay,” Kapadia said. “Bombay is supposedly free, but for whom? It’s actually really difficult to make a life here, and it’s not a very good life.”

Kapadia’s ambivalence towards Mumbai is evident in All We Imagine As Light. Among its themes is the manner in which love, companionship and personal transformation are compromised by loneliness and alienation. The predominantly Malayalam-language drama has a host of influences, from previous explorations of Mumbai’s debilitating effect on its residents to Taiwanese New Wave cinema, which uncovered fresh ways to explore the passage of time and a sense of space in cities.

Even as Kapadia kept thinking about her script, she began working on a documentary inspired by the FTII agitation. A Night of Knowing Nothing looks at student protests raging on campuses across the country. The documentary was screened at Cannes in 2021, where it won the top award in its category.

A Night of Knowing Nothing (2021).

Along the way, All We Imagine As Light was taking shape, morphing into a many-sided exploration of Mumbai refracted through the experiences of women from different generations.

“For me, the film is about being more accepting, of ideas and people you don’t always agree with,” Kapadia said. “The feeling of inclusivity and accepting is what friendship as a relationship allows us. Friendship can be an alternative to family.”

Ranabir Das was “like a second pair of eyes” on the script, he said. “Payal writes a lot and writes the same scene in many ways,” added Das, who graduated in cinematography from FTII in 2017, a year ahead of Kapadia.

“The only way to write is to write a lot and rewrite a lot,” Kapadia observed. “My films are the way they are because I don’t need to get from A to B. So I will have written 15 scenes for one scene. Ranabir has a very good ability to arrange things, to take this from here and that feeling from there. It is like editing with the writing, in a sense.”

All We Imagine Has Light, which has dream sequences seamlessly woven into realistic moments, is less elliptical than Kapadia’s previous documentary. “A Night of Knowing Nothing was made more in post-production, so the process lent itself to being non-linear,” Das explained. “Here, we put things down before shooting, so it became more linear. But because Payal had already started writing All We Imagine As Light, we also wanted to bring in a little more of a wayward narrative.”

A shooting still from All We Imagine as Light (2024). Photo by Akshay Mahajan.

The colour blue that serves as a motif across the film partly evokes the monsoon. “We wanted to have some kind of a season, and Bombay has only two seasons – monsoon and no monsoon,” Kapadia said. “In the monsoon, the blue tarpaulin covers come out. Even the greys have a bit of blue in them.”

Although Kapadia was born in Mumbai, she spent 10 years away, at the Rishi Valley School in Andhra Pradesh. She later earned a degree in economics and sociology from St Xavier’s College in Mumbai and a diploma in Social Communications Media at the Sophia Polytechnic before moving to Pune for the filmmaking course.

“You sees changes in a city when you don’t live there all the time,” Kapadia said. “Bombay is in a state of flux – its map is literally changing. I am shocked and surprised at the erasure of parts of the city as they develop. I am privileged enough to zoom by the changes”.

When Kolkata native Ranabir Das moved to Mumbai in 2018, he “didn’t like it at all”. He added, “It is an unforgiving city – you have to be on the ball all the time. It is fast and very business-like. But the more time I spent in Bombay, I grew to like it a lot. This contradiction is there for Payal as well, and it was reflected in how we shot the film.”

All We Imagine As Light does not feature images of Mumbai’s landmarks. Instead, Das’s camera stays mostly on eye level, watching the characters move between cubbyhole-homes and cramped workplaces.

“The most iconic thing about Bombay is the train – and the construction,” Kapadia said. “We didn’t have any scenic images.” Yet, the film’s tone is tender and pensive rather than dark and despairing. Small joys – a pregnant cat, a stolen kiss in a crowd – resist the city’s super-dense crush load.

Kani Kusruti in All We Imagine As Light (2024). Courtesy Petit Chaos/Chalk & Cheese Films.

“We are very much excited by everyday delights,” Kapadia said. “If you’re not excited by, say, eating something nice, then what’s the point? The weight of the world is there for everyone, but we wanted to keep that feeling of delight.”

Kapadia attributes her fascination for “everyday delights” to her mother, the eminent artist Nalini Malani. Initially a painter, Malani expanded her practice in the 1990s to include video art, installations and performance art.

“My mother was always showing me a lot of art, and she would make me observe things,” Kapadia said. “She would get excited about everything, whether it was making a dish or growing a plant. I remember once that a water pipe broke at home and even as we were cleaning up, we were observing how the water was flowing. This memory has stayed with me. We would get super-excited about a kind of flower, or a red-coloured seed that came in a particular season.”

During school vacations, Kapadia often accompanied Malani to her studio, and also saw her work on her videos with the editor Nandini Bedi. “I would be fascinated watching them do linear editing with VHS tapes, which they had to keep logging and playing back. It was very material – there was something hand-made about the whole thing. That is a process I like. It’s like putting together a quilt.”

Even at Rishi Valley, Kapadia was being exposed to cinema. Every week, a teacher rolled out a television set and screened anything between Satyajit Ray and Hollywood.

Another enlightened teacher at St Xavier’s prompted Kapadia to take an analytical approach to cinema. “At St Xavier’s, I learn to make connections between film, art and literature that have stayed with me,” Kapadia said. These influences cohered at FTII, which Kapadia described in her press statement as “a space where we could not only formulate our thoughts about filmmaking but also about the world we inhabit”.

Kapadia’s statement makes a pitch for diversity: “We live in a country where we are lucky to have so many cinemas. We should accept that many different kinds of films can exist together. As the election results are around the corner, I can only say that whoever comes into power must work towards a more equal society where every individual has the right to our country’s resources and that they are not limited to the hands of a few. The resources are also non-material, like cultural capital, like education and access to the arts. As citizens of the country it is our responsibility to hold every government accountable for this.”

While not overtly political, All We Imagine As Light is rebellious in its own way. Its characters make crucial decisions about their understanding of each other and their relationship with Mumbai itself.

Kapadia had initially wanted to cast Kani Kusruti as Anu, the younger nurse played by Divya Prabha. Kapadia had seen Kusruti in the short film Memories of a Machine in 2016.

“Kani is very versatile, and being from a theatre background, plunges into a film whole-heartedly,” Kapadia said. “Of course, by the time I made the film, she was older. I had seen Divya in Mahesh Narayanan’s Ariyippu. While she played a different character there, she is actually full of life. Chhaya Kadam understood her character well. She added her own masala, like the line ‘Ekta Jeev Sadashiv’ from the Dada Kondke film.”

All We Imagine as Light was filmed in two schedules in 2023. In March, French co-producer Petit Chaos told Kapadia that her film had been selected for Cannes.

Kapadia said, “We were initially told that the film was selected for Un Certain Regard” – the non-competitive section. “We were very happy. Then when we were told that we were actually in the Competition, we were like, wow, but we were scared too. We hadn’t finished the sound design or locked the edit. It was like being late for a classroom project. There were a lot of sleepless nights.”

Kapadia and Das moved to France five months ago to complete the movie. Having a French co-producer meant that French technicians had to be hired. The film has been edited by Jeanne Sarfati and Clement Pinteaux – the latter was a consultant on A Night of Knowing Nothing.

The movie gathered award-winning buzz right after its premiere, with some critics even betting on the top prize, the Palme d’Or. “When you finish a film this close to its screening, you completely lose perspective,” Kapadia said. “We were in the zone of seeing whether the film was working technically.”

When Kapadia’s name was announced as the Grand Prix winner, she went on stage along with Kani Kusruti, Divya Prabha and Chhaya Kadam. “Without them, there would be no Grand Prix,” Kapadia said. “The actors were very much part of the script. The film was collaborative in the true sense.”

All We Imagine As Light (2024).

Also read:

Cannes Film Festival: Payal Kapadia is first Indian to win Grand Prix for ‘All We Imagine As Light’

‘All We Imagine As Light’ review: A poetic exploration of love and dreams

Payal Kapadia’s Cannes Grand Prix shows why free expression is vital for FTII and other institutions