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Indian filmmaker shunned by cinema establishment wins Cannes grand prize

Indian filmmaker Payal Kapadia made history on Saturday by becoming the first person from India to win the prestigious Grand Prix at the 77th Cannes Film Festival, despite being embroiled in controversy back home.

Kapadia’s film All We Imagine As Light is the first Indian film in three decades to compete at Cannes in the main competition. The film follows nurse Prabha and her younger roommate Anu, as they navigate life in the Indian city of Mumbai.

“It was already a dream to be selected in competition and this was beyond my imagination,” Kapadia said in her acceptance speech.

“Please don’t wait another 30 years to have an Indian film,” she added.

“This film is about friendship, about three very different women. Oftentimes, women are pitted against each other. This is the way our society is designed and it is really unfortunate. But for me, friendship is a very important relationship because it can lead to greater solidarity, inclusivity and empathy.”

The last time an Indian film was short-listed for the main competition was in 1994, when Shaji N Karun’s film Swaham lost the Palme d’Or to Quentin Tarantino for Pulp Fiction.

Divya Prabha, Payal Kapadia, Chhaya Kadam and Kani Kusruti pose with the Grand Prix Award for ‘All We Imagine As Light’ during the Palme D’Or Winners Photocall
Divya Prabha, Payal Kapadia, Chhaya Kadam and Kani Kusruti pose with the Grand Prix Award for ‘All We Imagine As Light’ during the Palme D’Or Winners Photocall (WireImage)

All We Imagine As Light marks Kapadia’s debut as a director in a feature film, and her documentary A Night of Knowing won the L’Oeil d’Or award at Cannes in 2021.

Kapadia’s win should be a sign of great pride for both India and her alma mater, the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), but her journey to Cannes has been anything but smooth.

In December 2016, when Kapadia was a final year film direction student at FTII in the Indian city of Pune, she was among six students who had qualified for the foreign exchange programme, in addition to being one of eight students to receive a scholarship set up by private donors for students at the top of their class.

However, Kapadia was unable to enjoy either of these hard-earned opportunities. The FTII administration disqualified Kapadia, along with several other students, for participating in a students’ strike in 2015 against the proposed appointment of actor-turned-politician Gajendra Chauhan as chairman of the institute.

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The appointment of Chauhan, who was known primarily for playing Yudisthir in the television adaptation of Indian epic Mahabharat, triggered the longest protest in the institute’s history, as students said he lacked “credentials and vision” and felt that his appointment was “politically coloured”.

Kapadia was at the forefront of the 139-days-long protests, and was named, along with 34 other students, in a complaint registered by then-institute director Prashant Pathrabe that said a group of 50 students had forcibly detained him in his office.

The case is still pending nine years later, and is set to be heard in Pune on 26 June.

“It is our belief that an academically bright student must also learn to function within the framework of institutional rules and good behaviour. The two cannot be disjointed,” then-director Bhupendra Kainthola told Indian Express in January 2017.

The FTII has posted a message on X congratulating Kapadia for her Cannes win, and has received an immediate backlash for what some perceived as hypocrisy from the institute.

Indian actor Ali Fazal and Oscar-winning sound designer Resul Pookutty both called out the institute, with Pookutty writing on Facebook: “It would be interesting to pause for a moment and think, has (the) Indian Film Industry anything to do with this win?! None! who all are been taken to Cannes by Govt Of India as delegation every year?! The usual suspects and familiar faces from mainstream Industry.”

Kapadia, despite her difficult experience with the FTII, continues to stress the importance and role of public education and universities in creating and nurturing artists.

“We owe a lot to public education to make us the filmmakers we are… Universities are spaces of freedom. This is why we needed to make this film. As students who have been part of them, it is our responsibility to protect what they stand for so that the next generation can benefit,” Kapadia told the Indian Express after her win.

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