Reality bytes: Meet Payal Kapadia, who just won best documentary at Cannes
A student writes letters to her estranged lover, who has been pulled out of college by his parents for being in a relationship with her, a girl of a different caste. Through her letters and her story, the viewer gets a sense of what it can be like to be a university student in India today, the internal turmoil, peer pressure, political protests on campus, crackdowns on dissent.
“(A merging of) reality with fiction, dreams, memories, fantasies and anxieties, an amorphous narrative unfolds,” is how the Cannes Film Festival website describes Payal Kapadia’s A Night of Knowing Nothing.
The work of experimental docu-fiction won the prestigious the Oeil d’or or Golden Eye for best documentary at Cannes last week. Kapadia, 35, says she was taken entirely by surprise. Even being selected was a surprise as she had no such expectation, she says.
This is Kapadia’s first full-length feature, after three short films. She made it, she told Wknd, because it is important to her that artists reflect the world they live in.
Kapadia developed a love of storytelling early on, listening to her grandmother’s tales of life in undivided India, and her shift to independent India during Partition. Those origin tales gave Kapadia an appreciation for context as well as the power of fantasy. It’s why she imbues her projects with multiple layers of reality, drawn from dreams and imagined futures, myths and folklore, and “the tapestry of mental images that make up each person’s past”.
A Night of Knowing Nothing is the first Indian documentary to win at Cannes in decades. In 1957, Gotoma the Buddha directed by Rajbans Khanna won the Jury Prize. In 2016, The Cinema Travellers, a film on India’s travelling talkies directed by Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya, received honourable mention.
Kapadia’s film comes at a time when India and South Asia are having a moment on the world stage. This is where most of the global population, and its largest and fastest-growing markets, now reside or have roots. Stories of this region, which is also a fast-changing one, matter not just commercially but also in terms of understanding the world and its changing dynamics.
In the mainstream, Slumdog Millionaire (2008) was an early sign of these shifting interests. More recently, Bong Joon-ho’s Korean film Parasite (2019) became the first non-English film to win the Oscar for Best Picture; it also won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. India’s Chaitanya Tamhane won Best Film at the Venice International Film Festival in 2014 in the Horizons category (for films that represent the latest aesthetic and expressive trends) with his debut feature Court. His next, The Disciple, won the International Critics’ Prize and Best Screenplay at the Venice International Film Festival last year.
“There are several projects from South Asia at Cannes this time. Kapadia’s win is significant, but we should definitely mention Bangladeshi filmmaker Abdullah Mohammad Saad’s Rehana Maryam Noor that just premiered at Cannes’s Un Certain Regard. It has made history as Bangladesh’s first feature film to make it to the Cannes’ official selection, 19 years after filmmaker Tareque Masud’s Matir Moina (The Clay Bird) was at Directors’ Fortnight, a parallel section,” says Meenakshi Shedde, South Asia delegate to the Berlin International Film Festival. The fact that the South Asian population, including the diaspora, makes up a large part of the world audience adds to the appeal, she says.
Kapadia is hoping that the major win at one of the most prestigious film platforms in the world will make her next steps easier. “There is a lot of funding in many South-East Asian countries for films that push the boundaries of cinema. If there were more ways to find finance in India for films which are outside the commercial sphere, it would help filmmakers take more risks and create diversity in the voices being heard,” she says.
Smaller platforms are helping amplify smaller voices too. Since 2004, the Berlin festival has invited applications for funding from youngsters in countries where film is not a strong medium any more, like Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Afghanistan. “This World Cinema Fund has helped south Asian makers to get more recognition,” Shedde says.
Similar initiatives are acting as incubators for regional talent at the Busan International Film Festival in South Korea, at festivals in New York, London, Melbourne, Toronto. “There are festivals that only show Indian and South Asian movies through the year, leading to significantly increased visibility,” Shedde says.
For Kapadia, the win is also important for the format of the documentary, still a rather underappreciated and underexposed one in India. “It is a little easier to make documentaries as they need less funding and there are more funding bodies for them even in India,” she says. “But there are still no distribution networks for these films. Better opportunities to distribute non-commercial cinema in theatres would really help improve viewership for different kinds of films.”
For now, though, it’s time to celebrate.