All We Imagine As Light review – dreamlike and gentle modern Mumbai tale is a triumph | Film

There is a freshness and emotional clarity in Payal Kapadia’s Cannes competition selection, an enriching humanity and gentleness which coexist with fervent, languorous eroticism and finally something epiphanic in the later scenes and mysterious final moments. Kapadia’s storytelling has something of Satyajit Ray’s The Big City and Days and Nights of the Forest; it is so fluent and absorbing.

All We Imagine As Light is the story of three nurses in modern-day Mumbai: Prabha (Kani Kusruti), Anu (Divya Prabha) and Parvaty (Chhaya Kadam). Each has come to the big city from smaller home towns. Prabha and the younger, flightier Anu are roommates and Anu (having only just moved in) is already asking the more sober and sensible Prabha to cover her share of the rent. She is also causing some scandal among the more gossipy elements of the hospital on account of her Muslim boyfriend, Shiaz (Hridu Haroon). Meanwhile, the older Parvaty, a widow, is being threatened with eviction because a property developer has bought her apartment building and her late husband did not leave her the documentation that would prove her resident’s right to remain, or at least to get compensation.

The action of the drama is triggered when Prabha receives through the post a brand-new rice cooker, which the saucer-eyed Anu establishes has been manufactured in Germany. Both women realise it must have been sent by Prabha’s absentee husband, who went to Germany almost immediately after their wedding and then stopped getting in touch. Is her husband now reviving their relationship, or is he, as Prabha clearly suspects, now definitively ending it with this insulting payoff gift? Meanwhile, a doctor is showing a romantic interest in Prabha and doesn’t care that she is married. Should she cut her losses with the past and allow this new man to love her? Anu herself has to decide how committed she can be to Shiaz; a recent assignation in his parents’ house, for which she bought a burqa as a disguise, had to be called off at the last moment when they returned unexpectedly.

A mood of romantic and emotional insecurity hangs over these women’s lives, made more nerve-janglingly unhappy and soap-operatic for unfolding in the big city where there are so many people but you are effectively alone. It is partly to escape Mumbai that Prabha and Anu agree to accompany Parvaty when she quits her job at the hospital and goes back to her home village on the coast. The other two help with the luggage, although Anu has reasons of her own for going on a pretext to this discreetly remote place.

Away from the city, with all its rational, commercial worries, Prabha finds relief, and, when her professional skills are called upon in a crisis, she has a kind of revelation. It is partly a hallucinatory revelation, showing her what it means to have been separated from her husband for so long and also from her own happiness and future. But it also can be seen as a kind of fable, a literal miracle, which gives Prabha an insight into what her husband’s existence (and by implication her own) has actually been like all these years, and the nature of the darkness in which they have had to live. It is both dreamlike and like waking up from a dream. This is a glorious film.

All We Imagine As Light screened at the Cannes film festival.

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