Amazing grace in victory

Straight from the heart of Cannes, our writer brings you updates from one of the most prestigious film festivals in the world
Team 'All We Imagine As Light' at the Cannes Film Festival
Team 'All We Imagine As Light' at the Cannes Film Festival

In winning the Grand Prix for her debut feature film, 'All We Imagine As Light' (AWIAL), at the Cannes Film Festival 2024, Payal Kapadia didn’t just post a milestone in the history of Indian cinema but elegantly furthered an ongoing debate to the next level. It had taken 30 years (since Shaji N Karun’s 'Swaham' in 1994) for an Indian film to find a place in the competition section of the Cannes Film Festival. “Please don’t wait 30 years to have another Indian film,” she said in her award acceptance speech.

Despite a robust independent cinema, spearheaded by a bunch of talented young filmmakers, we have been persistently indulging in self-flagellation about how Indian cinema is not up to the gold standard of the West, never questioning their gaze on us and the defined vision within which our films get circumscribed.

'AWIAL', with its quiet and profound exploration of female friendship, uncovers a cinematic universe beyond the cliched expectations of song-n-dance Bollywood or a testosterone-driven 'RRR'. What’s more, Kapadia generously used her moment of glory to shine a light on all her co-warriors of indie cinema and underscored how much she valued her team, the cast and crew on every platform she spoke from. A graceful show of self-esteem, dignity, and solidarity.

At the post-awards winners’ press conference, Kapadia expressed happiness in getting recognized for her film but also highlighted the diversity in Indian filmmaking. “Interesting films are being made in India, and I’m only a product of that. There are a lot of interesting filmmakers with a variety of work in all languages. Every state has a strong film industry. We’ve been around for a long time but for some reason, it took 30 years to be selected,” she said. The Malayalam film industry and the Kerala state government got a special nod for making good cinema and supporting and furthering it.

A graduate of the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune, Payal is no stranger to Cannes. Her acclaimed debut feature documentary, 'A Night of Knowing Nothing', premiered at the Directors’ Fortnight sidebar in 2021 and won the Oeil d’Or (Golden Eye) award for Best Documentary Film. Her film, 'Afternoon Clouds', was part of the Cinefondation section in 2017.

While stating that it takes a village to make a film, she elaborated on the collaboration that went into making her film, especially the strong connection with her actresses—Kani Kusruti, Divya Prabha and Chhaya Kadam. She said that she saw a lot of films with strong female characters in Cannes but longed for even bigger space for women artists and technicians, and hoped Cannes would include more women filmmakers in its mix.

When asked about the universal language of her cinema which, perhaps, helped reach out to the West, she heaped lavish praise on her alma mater, the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune, for providing a fertile ground for it. “Over there we watched films from all over the world, we studied cinema from everywhere, and maybe that has played into how I like to make films and I think maybe that’s the language the Western audience can be more open to,” she said, while appreciating India’s own distinct vocabulary in cinema. “It’s very self-contained in India. There’s not always a need to send a film to an international festival. Mine is just one amongst the thousands of films made in India,” she said pointing out the strong, local film-going culture.

She also celebrated the success of fellow FTIIians at Cannes with the international press. Her batchmate Maisam Ali’s film 'In Retreat' played in the ACID sidebar and Chidananda S Naik’s short 'Sunflowers Were The First Ones To Know' got the top prize in the official LaCinef section of the festival this year. “It’s really nice that our school has led to us making different kinds of films,” she said. Her acknowledgement was like coming full circle. Back in 2015, she led the students’ protests against the then FTII chairman Gajendra Chauhan and faced disciplinary action for it.

Her documentary 'A Night of Knowing Nothing' was a poetic ode to the protest culture. The spirit of creative dissent is also reflected in how the personal and political dilemmas get aligned and intertwined in 'AWIAL'. The show of resistance continued on the ground at the festival as well. While her actor Kani Kusruti took a watermelon clutch to the film’s red carpet gala, in solidarity with Palestine, during the film’s photocall Kapadia herself wore a badge in support of the festival workers’ ongoing protests in France demanding better wages and acknowledgement.

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