At Cannes, 'All We Imagine As Light' achieved a unique success.

Payal Kapadia's Grand Prix victory at Cannes stands alone and deserves better than being taken in the sake of national pride.
At Cannes, 'All We Imagine As Light' achieved a unique success.
Daniele Venturelli

All We Imagine as Light was not meant to be in competition at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival. Payal Kapadia's movie was 'upgraded' from Un Certain Regard. The narrative was supposed to be about involvement. After all, it had been 30 years since an Indian film had competed for the Palme d'Or, a statistic that speaks more to Cannes' lack of interest than to Indian filmmaking itself. Still, you could see how it was going to go: a respectable one-minute applause at the conclusion, a smattering of articles from international reviewers marvelling at how different it is from 'Bollywood', and, a few days later, indigenous op-eds about what this'really means' for Indian cinema.

It played near the end of the event. The ovation lasted eight minutes. The first reviews were fantastic. Suddenly, the talk turned to awards—specifically, the Palme. It almost happened, too. Finally, All We Imagine as Light earned the Grand Prix, the festival's second highest prize and a first for an Indian film. The quick escalation of fortunes during those two days from India was bizarre; think how it must have felt for the festival's actors and crew. "Please don't wait 30 years to have another Indian film," Kapadia said in her victory speech at Cannes.

The All We Imagine as Light prize capped a remarkable year for India at Cannes. Anasuya Sengupta won the Un Certain Regard Performance Prize for The Shameless, a first for an Indian actor. Un Certain Regard screened Santosh, a film with an Indian cast and location directed by British-Indian Sandhya Suri, while Director's Fortnight screened Sister Midnight, starring Radhika Apte and directed by Karan Kandhari. Sunflowers Were the First Ones to Know..., by Chidananda S. Naik, earned first place in the Cinéfondation, a parallel short film selection for new artists.

Kapadia's ease with the press at the festival is unsurprising; she's been here before. at 2017, she appeared at Cinéfondation with her short film Afternoon Clouds. Her first film, A Night of Knowing Nothing, earned the L'Œil d'or award for Best Documentary Film during Director's Fortnight in 2021. I have yet to see All We Imagine as Light, but the words in the reviews ('dreamlike', 'poetic', 'hypnotic') could all be used to A Night of Knowing Nothing, a distinctive, gloomy film about resistance and relationships (both directed by Ranabir Das). Kapadia's debut movie, like her shorts, straddled the line between fiction, nonfiction, and experimental cinema.

A day after the triumph, Union I&B Minister Anurag Thakur congratulated X, saying, "I am proud to share that this film is also an official co-production of the I&B Ministry and is supported by its Film Incentive Scheme." This was unexpected, to say the least. The film is widely referred to be a collaboration between Paris-based producers Petit Chaos and Mumbai's Chalk & Cheese Films. According to Thomas Hakim of Petit Chaos, the film was supported by the Cannes Cinéfondation Residency, Rotterdam's Hubert Bals grant, CNC, Eurimages, the Gan Foundation, Cineworld, Visions Sud Est, Arte, Luxbox, Condor, and Pulpa Film. This is comparable to how A Night of Knowing Nothing was funded: with a Sundance grant, an IDFA-Bertha money, and French regional and national monies.

Individual or small groups of Indians often claim worldwide success in the cause of national pride and political posturing. However, in Kapadia's situation, this is quite severe. In terms of money and backing, the film appears to be independent of India—but this is not the case. The maker was targeted nine years ago by the Film and Television Institute of India, which is part of the I&B ministry. When Kapadia was a student at FTII, she took part in protests against Gajendra Chauhan, a former actor affiliated to the BJP and the film school's widely criticized then-president.  Kapadia, along with other students, faced disciplinary action, and a FIR was filed against them; oddly, the court hearing is next month, on June 26th. A Night of Knowing Nothing draws on student protests at FTII and other locations across the country. It has yet to be screened in India and is not available for streaming, as has been the situation with many politically charged independent films over the last decade.

I hope this triumph encourages more Indian films to compete in top festivals, but I'm skeptical that it will result in any changes at home. One little precedent could be established, however. In recent years, several superb Indian films have shown at international film festivals but have gone unnoticed by audiences in India.Digital releases for All That Breathes (last year) and While We Watched (this month) are a good sign. However, Indian viewers, not just festival goers, deserve to be captivated in the same way that the first naïve audience on the Croisette was.