'There’s a bit of me in all the characters,' says Cannes winner Payal Kapadia

After All We Imagine As Light wins the coveted Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival, director Payal Kapadia talks about the ideas behind the film, and how she managed to get funding for her independent film.
Team 'All We Imagine As Light' at the Cannes Film Festival
Team 'All We Imagine As Light' at the Cannes Film FestivalAP photo

It was love at first sight in Cannes for Payal Kapadia’s debut feature film, All We Imagine As Light. The first Indian film after 30 years of Shaji N Karun’s Swaham (1994) and the first ever by an Indian woman filmmaker to find a spot in the official competition section of Cannes Film Festival, it has now posted yet another milestone, bagging the coveted Grand Prix, the second highest award after the Palme d’Or.

A sublime, luminous rumination on the lives of three ordinary women—Prabha, Anu and Parvati in Mumbai. The film struck a universal emotional chord with its mix of melancholy and optimism.

The Malayalam-Marathi-Hindi language film is an India-France-Netherlands-Luxembourg co-production, and its win is expected to profoundly impact the course ahead for Indian independent cinema.

CE caught up with Payal at Palais des Festivals’ Audio-Visual Terrace.

It was the day after the film’s world premiere and a day before the formal closing ceremony, with Payal being nonchalant about the awards. Getting selected for the competition was a victory itself, she told us. However, Cannes had a bigger gift in store for her.

Excerpts:

Tell us the origin story of All We Imagine As Light—the characters came to you first or did the many themes of the film come first?

I think it was all together. I had a few scenes in my mind that I was keen on. Like the hallucinating old lady in the hospital and ending with the fable. These were the pieces that I had in mind, but also the characters of two very different women, who have come to Mumbai, away from their families. What we learn from Western feminism is that you can earn money and become independent because you’re financially liberated. But in India, and in all of Asia, that’s not the case. There are a lot of other complexities to it. These were the ideas in my mind. And I was also interested in two different women, almost different generations, living together, and what that brings to the story.

A still from Payal Kapadia's 'All We Imagine As Light'
A still from Payal Kapadia's 'All We Imagine As Light'

Was structuring it into the two halves—Mumbai and Ratnagiri—always on your mind?

We were thinking about these two different feelings of time. The first part of the film takes place over many days. And the second part is just one long day. So, I was interested in experimenting with it. In cinema, you can feel time differently. It’s a thing that is unique to music and cinema, something that I was very drawn towards.

Also, when you’re working a lot, you don’t get much time off. In Mumbai, even if you get a day off, you end up doing your chores. So, there’s no real sense of having a moment. So, this trip, that the three women are on, becomes a space where they start thinking about things a bit differently.

Music, time, and moments all come together. It informs your earlier work as well. There’s poetry even in the titles you choose for your films, there’s an element of poetry even if your films are highly political in their content.

I am a cinephile and I love to watch films. I have been obsessed with cinema, watching a lot of things and the possibilities that cinema gives you in terms of formalistically trying out things. In terms of politics, it’s about the kind of society we live in. That way some questions that I have about my own limitations are there in the film too.

You are making political points aesthetically, without getting shrill about it. Is that a more effective route to take?

I think a lot of films that we really like are such. A film like Fandry is extremely political. But it’s a very human story. It’s something that everyone can relate to. If there is a sense of didacticism in a film, I personally feel a little detached from it. But if the filmmaker is really talking about something which is very human and empathetic, then I connect to it immediately, on a very emotional level, and then I start to understand what politics is. If you see a film by Rima Das, there are so many layers in her work. But, at the end of the day, it’s also a story that anybody can relate to.

Humanism and hope underline your film as well.

I hope so. This film is about accepting each other, despite one’s differences. And that is something that I have been thinking a lot about as I grow older. The kind of judgments that I had made about people, I’m beginning to question myself about them. I think that’s what is coming through. There’s a bit of me in all the characters.

Filmmaker Payal Kapadia
Filmmaker Payal Kapadia

I loved the way you use documentary footage to set things up.

I think I really enjoy the freedom that nonfiction gives us. To just be able to have a small camera and shoot without a lot of expectations that you’re going to get something out of it. In fiction, because the time is less and there’s a lot of money and people involved you must make it, come what may. I like a little bit of trial and error.

‘I like my characters to speak several languages’

The scene with the stranger washed ashore in Ratnagiri reminded me a lot of the cave sequence in Passage to India in terms of the play between the real and the imagined. How did you conceptualise it?

I was thinking a lot about it being a contemporary folktale, there’s a fable-like quality where the second part is not very realistic. Like in our folktales where we can have a man suddenly turn into a tree or a ghost. I was thinking about the cooker (that Nurse Prabha (Kani Kusruti) gets) as an object. Almost like a genie, she manifests the stranger through it. The restrictions that she has put on herself are internalized patriarchy. So, to deal with it she only needs to manifest it. She needs to literally say this to her own inner demon who is this stranger/husband. She married somebody but they were not close and didn’t live together for long enough. So, he was a stranger to her. I thought that this would be a nice way for her to be with her own inner demons.

My thought was also that a lot of times, female friendships are marred by the internalized patriarchy that pits us against each other. It has nothing to do with us, but we are conditioned to feel a certain way about somebody else’s way of life: that person shouldn’t have it because we didn’t have it. I see myself also sometimes reacting in ways that I think are strange. Prabha must spit it out to be able to accept her friend Anu (Divya Prabha).

How did you conceptualise and shoot the intimate scenes?

It was something that we really discussed and thought about a lot. It was very collaborative. We had an intimacy coordinator on set which was fantastic. Naina Bhan is also an actress; she’s acted in the Netflix series, Ashim Ahluwalia’s Class. We had discussions with her about how we felt about it, and that whatever was going on in the characters’ minds at that time would decide the shot-taking. It’s about Anu experiencing something and her feelings are more important than anything else. So, through these discussions then, it became very clear what we needed to shoot, and how. My editor, Clement Pinteaux, is also very sensitive. There’s a gentleness in terms of how he likes to work. I think there is a lot of him also in how the scenes have turned out.

Now to what everyone in India is talking about—the advantages and disadvantages of co-productions.

In India, for a lot of people, it is tough to get access to funding. But now, with student exchanges, a lot of people from FTII (Film and Television Institute of India, Pune) have gotten opportunities to work with co-productions abroad.

I wish that there was a way that more people could access the co-production system because language becomes a barrier. We also need to have good Indian producers who can do the co-productions. I’ve also realized now, after working with Thomas Hakim and Petit Chaos, that there’s a lot of creativity involved in production. We watch similar films; he is very understanding of the ideas that I have. There’s a lot of back and forth. I take his opinion very seriously. And it’s a nice way to work. So, the idea that a producer just brings in the money for me changed after meeting them.

Many young, indie filmmakers would like to know how to crack the co-production code.

There is no code. It doesn’t happen very quickly. You must be patient. It’s a process and it’s all about whether you want to give into that process or not. Now, in India, a lot of people started funding their own films. And if you’re getting some freedom to do that, then it’s good to do that also, but I love structure. I like to have somebody to submit something to. I’m like a schoolgirl. It depends on who you are, and the kind of personality you are. I am self-employed, there’s nobody sitting on my head to say that I must do it. I could just completely get waylaid and not do anything, but Thomas would be insistent—we have a deadline.

French producer and an Indian filmmaker coming together for a film in which the characters are from Kerala, Maharashtra. It’s a true melting pot. Is this the way the cinema needs to evolve?

I like my characters to speak several languages because I don’t feel rooted anywhere. I feel like I’m a little bit of this and that. I’ve lived a little there, a little here. My friends come from everywhere. And I admire a lot of films from Kerala. They’re also the ones who show my films the most.

There’s so much of your institute, FTII, in Cannes this year. Santosh Sivan has been given the Pierre Angenieux tribute. Maisam’s film is showing in ACID and he is your batchmate. Chidananda Naik’s short has won the top award at LaCinef…

Lots of interesting things are happening around India. I’m also thrilled about Dominique Sangma’s Rapture releasing in France. He is a great filmmaker. Also, these films are from different regions. Meghalaya, Ladakh, Karnataka. Mine is in Malayalam, Hindi, and Marathi. 30 years ago the film in competition here was also in Malayalam. That’s what state support does.

So, would you opt for state support?

If it’s autonomous then yes.

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