To those who Cannes and do: Anupama Chopra on a delightful season for India - Hindustan Times
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To those who Cannes and do: Anupama Chopra on a delightful season for India

Jun 01, 2024 03:14 PM IST

With Payal Kapadia’s film winning the Grand Prix and Anasuya Sengupta winning a Best Actress prize, it’s been a celebration of stories of and by women.

One of the most potent and enduring images from the recently concluded Cannes Film Festival was that of director Payal Kapadia and her lead actors — Kani Kusruti, Divya Prabha and Chhaya Kadam — accepting the Grand Prix at the closing ceremony.

(From left) Actors Kani Kusruti and Chhaya Kadam, director Payal Kapadia and actor Divya Prabha of All We Imagine as Light, which won the Grand Prix, the second-most-prestigious prize at Cannes. (Reuters) PREMIUM
(From left) Actors Kani Kusruti and Chhaya Kadam, director Payal Kapadia and actor Divya Prabha of All We Imagine as Light, which won the Grand Prix, the second-most-prestigious prize at Cannes. (Reuters)

This is the festival’s second-most-prestigious prize (after the Palme d’Or). In winning it, these four women put independent Indian cinema on the global map.

While the festival’s larger gender ratio remained skewed – only four of the 22 films in the main competition were directed by women – Indian women were shining across sections.

Payal became the first Indian director to win the Grand Prix. At 38, she was also the youngest director in the festival’s main competition.

All We Imagine as Light (AWIAS), the first Indian film to be selected in the main competition in 30 years, is Payal’s first feature film. She was up against giants such as Francis Ford Coppola, David Cronenberg and Jacques Audiard. The film got an eight-minute standing ovation and garnered superlative reviews too, with The Guardian calling it a triumph and Indiewire writing of its “hypnotic grace”.

This wasn’t Payal’s first time at the Croisette. Her documentary A Night of Knowing Nothing (2021) won the Golden Eye at the festival. Before which, her student short Afternoon Clouds (2017) was selected in the Cinefondation category at Cannes.

Like those films, her first feature explores the complex inner worlds of women. AWIAS is the story of two Malayali nurses in Mumbai, Prabha and Anu, played by Kani and Divya respectively. Prabha is older, and weary. Anu is more spirited and defiant.

The film is driven less by plot and more by their emotions: Prabha’s loneliness, Anu’s desire to find intimacy with her boyfriend, their longing for more, and the crushing capitalism and oppression of Mumbai.

There’s a third woman in the mix, Parvaty, played by Chhaya Kadam. This has become Chhaya’s breakthrough year. After more than a decade spent toiling on the sidelines, she has made news as the tea-stall owner Manju Maai in Laapataa Ladies (2023), as the gangster Kanchan Kombdi in Madgaon Express (2024), and had two films in competition at Cannes: AWIAS and Karan Kandhari’s Sister Midnight.

Like AWIAS, Sister Midnight is about the loneliness of a woman in Mumbai, but Karan, a multidisciplinary artist based in London, takes a very different path from the one chosen by Payal. It includes some eclectic music choices and stop-motion animation.

The tale itself is a deliciously dark comedy about a new bride named Uma (Radhika Apte; phenomenal) who finds herself in a tiny shack, sleeping next to a man whom she barely knows, who is often drunk and seems petrified of sex. (Chhaya plays Uma’s neighbour, wary of her at first but later, a friend.) As Uma’s rage against her dreary circumstances mounts, Radhika comes into her own with ferocious energy. She is superb.

As is Shahana Goswami in Santosh, directed by another London-based artist, Sandhya Suri. Shahana plays the titular character, a young widow in rural India who inherits her dead husband’s job as a policeman. Sandhya, also making her feature debut, constructs a gripping and horrifying portrait of patriarchy, caste and the casual brutality of those in power.

Santosh competed in the festival’s Un Certain Regard section, as did The Shameless, featuring Anasuya Sengupta, who delivers a ferocious, fearless performance as a sex worker. Like Payal, she made history; in her case, by becoming the first Indian actor to win the Best Actress prize in this category.

Watching these women soar was one of my great joys at the festival this year. I hope that the momentum for Indian cinema, and particularly for stories by and about women, continues to grow.

(To reach Anupama Chopra with feedback, email feedbackforanu@gmail.com)

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