IN AFTERNOON CLOUDS, a 13-minute film about a woman and her Nepali house help, the silences roar and words periodically slice through them. Written and directed by Payal Kapadia, a Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) student, the film is thickly laden with pauses. When the tadka crackles or the wind rustles up the leaves, the sharp bursts of sound emerge in relief against the studied stillness.
“For me, sound is the most important thing in cinema,” says Kapadia, 31, now in her third year, who made the film as part of a second-year dialogue writing exercise. “The way I look at it, if you watch cinema with your ears closed, you won’t feel anything. Why is cinema different from a painting? It’s because of the passage of time. And time is measured through sound.”
In Afternoon Clouds, the two women, Kaki, a 60-year-old window and Malti, her help, converse sparingly about the mundane, when the afternoon is interrupted by an unexpected visitor from the past. The man and Malti move to speak in the corridor outside, a meeting heaving under the weight of its own meaning, until eventually, a bilious pest control fug engulfs the encounter. Words are spoken and withheld and we are left to make of it what we will.
“It’s about how the two women look at the idea of love,” says Kapadia. “I am at an age where I am someone who has a profession but things like marriage, love and commitment are also in one’s face. I use these characters to answer some of those questions. That’s why we make films; to understand ourselves and the things around us.” In the film, camera movements are few, the characters speak slowly, almost languidly, and their world feels encased in a membrane of melancholia.
Afternoon Clouds was the only Indian entry in competition at the Cannes Film Festival this year in any category—it made it to the 16-film shortlist in the Cinéfondation student film section. The segment, which seeks to discover and highlight new talent, saw 2,600 entries globally. Though it didn’t win, Kapadia believes the film was well received.
The film was entered by FTII so the team was only vaguely aware that it was being sent to various festivals. “It was a pleasant surprise and a huge deal to even be shortlisted,” Kapadia says. The rest of the team of third-year students included director of photography Mayank Khurana, with editing by Ghanshyam Shimpi and sound by Shreyank Nanjappa.
When the shortlist was announced in March, Kapadia and others were shooting a documentary in Bhimashankar Forest, Maharashtra, where internet access was patchy. They would drive up a hill once a day and stand at a particular spot to catch some connectivity. It was on one such daily expedition that she got an email informing her their film had been selected. “I was in a completely different world at the time,” she says. “It was strange and surreal how these things happen.”
Shooting on film has a different aesthetic quality from digital; the softness in the image is different, everything has a unique character
At Cannes, as per standard procedure, media coverage swirled around the fancy frocks and photo calls, and Indian newspapers fawned over the Bollywood stars romping on the Promenade de la Croisette in their designer wear. Kapadia wore a sari, in case you were wondering, during a five-minute red carpet stopover en route to one of the screenings.
“I was thinking of a giant red carpet, but it’s just a small part,” she says. “It’s funny. The perception one has of Cannes is so different. Most of Cannes is like a normal film festival. But with this kind of perception [of glamour], if cinema gets spoken about, then why not?”
Kapadia herself speaks with ebullience about cinema, the art and craft of it, the kind of films she watches and wants to make. Her own favourites include filmmakers such as Pedro Costa, Naomi Kawase and Apichatpong Weerasethakul; she is emphatic about her love for slower cinema.
As a teenager at Rishi Valley School, a boarding school in Andhra Pradesh, Kapadia was part of the film club where unsuspecting youngsters were thrown into the deep end of the avant-garde by way of auteurs like Ritwik Ghatak and Andrei Tarkovsky. “I never understood it then,” she says. “But retrospectively I think it had an impact on how I see the world.”
The school, best known for its alternative approach to education, had no TV, internet when it came was limited and contact with the outside world of popular culture was sparing. Those years sharpened her ways of perceiving things. “It’s difficult for young people to have patience now, considering the amount of images they are constantly exposed to,” she says. “I feel privileged that I developed a sense of patience towards looking at and observing the world.”
After school, Kapadia joined St Xavier’s College in Mumbai, where she majored in economics but not before she also took one impactful film appreciation class. “I started thinking about cinema differently,” she says, “That it need not be very plot driven. It can be poetic without being didactic, that it can really make you think beyond yourself.”
SHE THEN DID a one-year masters degree at Sophia College and applied to FTII, but didn’t get in the first time. Following a five-year stint working in Mumbai in advertising and assisting a video artist, she applied again. “I was very depressed,” she says, of the first rejection. “Since school, I wanted to go to FTII. So many filmmakers I admired had studied there. It’s really hard, so I thought I would never get in but then I decided to apply again.” In 2012 Kapadia got admitted to FTII on her second attempt, and now has about six months left before she graduates from the institute with a specialisation in direction.
Afternoon Clouds isn’t Kapadia’s first film to earn worldwide acclaim, though. Her 2014 short film, The Last Mango Before the Monsoon, won the International Critics’ Prize at the Oberhausen Film Festival last year and also a prize at the Mumbai International Film Festival. It was a self-produced film and shot digitally. Afternoon Clouds, on the other hand, was funded by the institute and shot on film, a more old-school approach, and a medium she enthusiastically talks up. More filmmakers are moving to digital now, which tends to be cheaper, and allows a wider margin of error.
“With film, you have to be really precise,” explains Kapadia. “It also has a different aesthetic quality; the softness in the image is different, everything has a unique and specific character.”
Kapadia is now working on a 20-minute feature film. “Filmmaking takes a long time and you have to be particular about every detail,” she says. “It’s like making a sculpture. You are chipping away little by little, and you may not know what the final sculpture will be. A film reveals itself really slowly. It’s the process that is important.”
There’s also the conscious or sub- conscious influence that her mother, the artist Nalini Malani, has had, whether it was the collection of films they had at home or her artistic approach more broadly. “She is always interested in everything around her,” reflects Kapadia. “To be in the arts or to be making something you need to have that interest in life. There is beauty in everything around you and she has always had an enthusiasm for life.”
Not all filmmakers believe formal schooling experience is essential to the craft. But Kapadia is certain it was the right choice for her. “Definitely,” she says. “Being at FTII really gave me the time to think about how I want to make films and build a visual language unique to myself. You are watching avant-garde films and having informed conversations. For me, that helped.”