Payal Kapadia, first Indian to win the Grand Prix at Cannes – Interview by Mythily Ramachandran (Exclusive)

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At the recently concluded Cannes Film Festival, Indian director Payal Kapadia etched her name for eternity in the annals of cinema history by winning the ‘Grand Prix.’ Kapadia’s debut feature All We Imagine As Light, was singled out among 22 entries. Her contenders included the likes of Andrea Arnold, Francis Ford Coppola, Jia Zhange-Ke, Paolo Sorrentino, Sean Baker, and Ali Abbasi. Kapadia is the first Indian woman filmmaker to win the coveted prize. No other Indian director had ever competed for the honour nor bagged it. Thirty years ago, Malayalam director Shaji N Karun’s Swaham‘ qualified at Cannes for the competition category in 1994.

Kapadia’s magic moment happened when AWIAL received a standing ovation for eight long minutes after its Cannes premiere. This French-Indo production is set in Mumbai and narrates the bonding of three women – Anu, Prabha, and Parvaty-working inside a hospital.

An FTII (Film Institute of India -Pune) graduate, Kapadia is not new to Cannes. Her short film Afternoon Clouds premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2017. In 2021, her film, A Night of Knowing Nothing, won the ‘Best Documentary’ prize at Cannes and travelled globally winning eighteen prizes.

Mythily Ramachandran spoke to Kapadia about the making of her film and making history at Cannes.

Mythily Ramachandran: Tell us about the Cannes experience.

Payal Kapadia: It was like a dream. I thank my teammates for making it happen for me. There was a wonderful and warm feeling after the screening. A young woman came up and spoke to me. She was not from France but had made France her home. She learned French and her whole life is there. For her even if the film was about Mumbai, she connected to that feeling of coming from outside and making friends, your family. That touched me.

MR: What triggered the story idea?

PK: I am from Mumbai. I didn’t always grow up here but it’s the city that I am the most familiar with. Mumbai is a city with a large diversity. So many people who speak different languages come here to work and live. When you travel in the ladies’ compartment in the local train you hear different languages. I love this aspect of Mumbai. It’s also a place where it’s a little bit easier for women to work compared to many other places in the country. The film is about women who come to work in Mumbai. I have always wanted to make a film about the difficulties of negotiating life and work in Mumbai, especially from the view point of a woman.

MR: How was the writing process with dialogues in two languages-Hindi and Malayalam (south Indian language)?

PK: It took four years to write. The film needed a lot of research. We met nurses and hospital staffs. We researched the history of the mill movements in Mumbai and the right to housing for the families of the mill workers. I worked with my associate director Robin Joy and Naseem Azad (c-dialogue writer). We worked out the script in Malayalam. When the actors came on board they too changed some of the lines and made them their own.

MR: What about filming in Mumbai?

PK: We shot the film in two parts. The first part, in Mumbai, was shot in June and July 2023, during the heavy Monsoon. I loved shooting in Mumbai even though it was difficult it was a great experience. Sometimes we shot scenes in documentary style with a small camera so that we could shoot the city as it is and not with the actors. This way we could capture the city. The second part was shot in November. We had to wait for the season to change. As the second part is in Ratnagiri (a coastal district of Maharashtra a western state of India), the landscape completely changes after the Monsoon. The lush green countryside becomes covered with dry grass and the red earth is exposed. The red soil is an integral part of the identity of Ratnagiri. I was keen for this shift to take place to feel the colours of the two spaces in two seasons.

MR: Did you shoot inside a real hospital?

PK: We had a wonderful location scouter Mr. Kishore Sawant who found us the main apartment of the film. It was a typical Mumbai flat. And, the best thing about it was the metro railway outside the window. We took a shot of the train passing behind the main character at a crucial moment in the film. The timing was so perfect. Sawant found a hospital that was going to be broken down in a few months. All the medical equipment was still inside. That worked out well.

Kani Kusruti and Divya Prabha in ALL WE IMAGINE AS LGHT

MR: What were the production challenges?

PK: I met producer Thomas Hakim at another film festival and we immediately got along. We had the same taste in films and this was really reassuring for me as I wanted to work with someone I could creatively connect with. He and his partner at Petit Chaos, Julien Graff also encouraged me to make my previous film, A Night of Knowing Nothing. AWIAL was developed under the Cine Foundation Residency 2019 at Cannes. The Residency was important for me as I met my French producers in Paris. We worked together on the script. For our Indian producer we reached out to Zico Maitra. Although it was his first feature, too, I wanted to work with someone who gave me the freedom, knowing the limitations of the film we were making. He is someone who understands the importance of an artistic vision and is always attempting to help the film fulfill it.

MR: Tell us about the main characters.

PK: Anu and Prabha come from the Southern State of Kerala, where nursing is a profession well looked upon, and women choosing this line of work are supported. Many women working in Mumbai come from Kerala, Prabha’s husband lives in Germany and she has not heard from him for some time. Parvaty works in the same hospital. Prabha is a complicated person. She likes to be needed by people. She tries to help Parvaty to keep her apartment and she pays Anu’s part of the rent. She’s a sort of an angel among her community but she’s also a bit severe. She does not think about her own desires.

MR: What else?

PK: The friendship between these three women is a complex one. Each of them have their flaws and are not always perfect. I was interested in looking at friendship, a relationship that has no really definition. As one grows older, our friends become a stronger support system to us, sometimes even more than our families. I feel this to be true when one lives away from home especially. This was a relationship I wanted to explore in the film.

Still from ALL WE IMAGINE AS LIGHT

MR: How did you select your actors?

PK: Prabha was the first one we cast. Her name is Kani Kusruti. She does a lot of art house cinema. I had her in mind when writing the script. She has a background in theatre and is versatile in her performances. We worked together on the scenes before the shooting, doing readings with the other actors, finding new ideas, and even changing the lines. I speak Hindi and Marathi but Mayalaman is not my language. It can be hard to direct in a language that you’re not fluent in. You have to internalize a lot of gestures. She contributed a lot to the understanding of the character, the social milieu and the language.

The actress who plays Anu is Divya Prabha. She is also from Kerala. She was the lead actress in Ariyippu (a Malayalam film nominated for the Locarno festival 2022). Divya has a strong presence. She is extremely hardworking and once she believes in the project, she gives it her all.

Parvaty is played by Chhaya Kadam. She’s a very seasoned actress. She comes from Ratnagiri and her village is not far from where we shot. So she knew the milieu well, and she understood what it meant to make this journey to try to live in Mumbai and not always succeed.

I wanted to work with people who understood the film and were willing to give me time as I am a first-time fiction feature director. I was lucky to have worked with them.

MR: Did you always want to become a filmmaker?

PK: I was clueless about what I wanted to do after school. When I joined college I started attending film festivals. That was where my curiosity and interest in cinema started. For me joining FTII was an important space. I learnt a lot from being there. We watched a lot of world cinema. The best part was the diversity of students who were my batch mates. They were all talented.

MR: Why this title?

PK: The film is about the possibility of hope and I wanted to find a title that reflects that.

Mythily Ramachandran is an independent journalist from Chennai, India with over three decades of reporting experience in leading Indian and international publications, including Gulf News, (UAE), South Morning China Post, and Nikkei Asia (Japan). She is a tomato-critic at rottentomatoes.com. When this crazy film buff is not watching films, she is snooping around for those little-known stories of human interest.

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