Dreams of Direct Love: The Films of Payal Kapadia
by Kelley Dong
Swathes of the supernatural and natural world lightly brush across one another in the films of Payal Kapadia, in which the viewer becomes witness to their elegant enmeshment. In her trilogy of short films—The Last Mango Before the Monsoon (2015), Afternoon Clouds (2017), and What is the Summer Saying (2018)—each title is respectively categorized by the filmmaker as experimental, narrative and hybrid documentary. But even such strictures of terminology dissipate when these meditations are collated into a sweet, singular world of lonely lives across India. Together, they surpass the superficial visual markers of the dreamy, instead creating an overarching investigation of the dream as an incubator, where suppressed desire might find a new means of articulation.
I am referring to one dream study in particular: while watching Kapadia’s films, I recalled a 2013 research project by Japanese neuroscientists, who used machine learning to decode the imagery of three mens’ dreams. Their research focused on the hypnagogic stage of consciousness, a transitional period of lucidity as one falls asleep. But although the team could learn the type of object—for instance, a person—that appeared in such a dream, they fell short of identifying the object’s specifics, like a name or a face. They were left with a much broader database of universals, the truth shrouded in (or rather, protected by) ambiguity. Within the broad range of regions of Payal Kapadia’s selection, from Mumbai to the Western Ghats in Maharashtra, her fantastical suspension of reality mostly emerges on a small scale through the arrangement of generic objects as surreal still life portraiture. Long takes across houses (which bring to mind the elliptical rhythm with which Tsai Ming-liang floats across humid apartments) draw the eye across the geometry of domestic space, punctuated by these little trinkets, until the neatness of the familiar becomes peculiar.
In interviews Kapadia regularly refers to the haiku as a formal equivalent to the short film. We can recognize the succinctness of the haiku applied in the division of Kapadia’s films into multiple vignettes, each marked by the presence of a small, symbolic souvenir (the aforementioned objects) found in the dream. As she explains in a 2018 interview with Berlinale, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” Within a dream, that whole is lost at the moment of waking. Only the loosely gathered parts can be salvaged. This epistemological limitation is the subject of The Last Mango Before the Monsoon, which meets grief with images of rebirth. The film opens on a woman seated alone in a room, holding a red mango; we can barely see the flashes of fleshy red between her fingers. Cloaked in a solemn shadow, she faces the window with lonely yearning. Upon her exit from the room and to the field by the village, the film is drawn from darkness into daylight, but the dream does not end. The woman looks out at the forest outside the village. Her husband stares back, standing at a distance not as an arrival but as a final farewell: a voice speaks over a montage of watercolours, describing a lost spirit’s wandering through the forest before reincarnation—“as an insect, a bird, or an elephant.” The elephant, however, can only be recorded from afar with a camera installed by two scientists who’ve entered the forest to observe animals. But even they cannot stay to watch these creatures walk the earth up close, and neither can we. The elephant moves offscreen through the trees as the film transports us to the city, where cars fly across the highway and inhabitants (including the woman, now returned to her apartment home) occupy the isolated single frames of windows and relay stories of apparitions, of an encounter that might have been.
In Afternoon Clouds (2017), the only Indian film to compete at the Cannes Film Festival that year, the central object is a fictional flower that “blossoms throughout the whole year.” That such a plant does not exist is a source of sadness in Kaki’s (a 60-year-old widow) home, where she and her Nepali maid, Mati, have come together to cook. Kaki’s husband, we learn, was obsessed with extending the life of his plants, a fixation left unfulfilled after his death. After the meal is complete, Afternoon Clouds separates the women as they find their loves in different corners of the building. Mourning permeates where Kaki’s husband once stood, but a rainbow of mahogany, brick rose, and light indigo (inspired by the paintings of Arpita Singh, which also appear throughout the film) still fills the house with warm sensuality as Kaki and Mati (just as in The Last Mango Before the Monsoon). Once apart from one another, the friction of the employer-worker relation is placed on pause (though this does not stop the pain in Mati’s knee). Alone, Mati lies down on the floor. As the sunlight moves across her face, Kapadia crosscuts to her lover Sapan in a hallway, claiming: “My ship is here for a day.” He speaks of bargaining for rice during his year as a sailor, of a motor going off on its own on the ship, the presence of “so many ghosts” in the ocean. Without warning, the halls are suddenly fumigated. The air around him fills with smoke. Could he be one of those ghosts, paying his last visit before departure?
Meanwhile, as Kati sleeps, the film briefly cuts to a nude portrait of a woman (by Singh) circled by flowers and men. When she opens her eyes, it is night, and Mati has already returned. Like the mother who shares what she saw the night before to her daughter in Last Mango, Kati attempts to hold onto the fleeting fragments she remembers through confession to Mati: she’d seen her late husband in a suit, but he did not recognize her. The search for the flower that blooms all year, the last of the trilogy, What is the Summer Saying expands the erotic and spiritual dimensions of this encounter to its broadest proportions. The film begins and ends in colour, but its middle portion is in a rich black-and-white, and it moves across Kodwal village (located in Maharashtra’s Sahyadri hills), in and out of houses, to continue Kapadia’s reflections on what she describes to Scroll.In as “the inability to talk openly about love.” That resistance to expression has an invisible hold on the women in the film who, reticent to appear on camera, only speak through voiceover about the village’s remote location, about getting fish for dinner. One woman, as is characteristic of the trilogy, remembers her late husband and his affection for her. The shot, however, only contains a cow looking into an empty room, an empty bed with a folded pile of unused blankets. The viewer, by this point, might be accustomed to Kapadia’s signature superimpositions of animated drawings. The blankness of the frame invokes an image of the lovers at the mere suggestion of what’s now lost: “He gave me a lot of love… I’m alone.” Obfuscation, a theme that in the earlier works appeared as fog over the hills and clouds in the sky, takes on more clever appearances here, like in the case of a hammock thrashing about against gravity that only hints at the weight of a wrapped body, and the bookending sequences of a man who collects honey from the bees in the forest.
The fate of the male bees, the film suggests, is to die after mating, or falling in love. Drawings appear again depicting a man and a woman before the man slowly rises and fades away as a new voice fades in, this time telling the tale of an arranged marriage in stark contrast to the union described by the previous voice. In fact, unlike the other films in the trilogy, which cut between or around and through dreams and reality, the voices and solitary figures of What is the Summer Saying are reminiscing in total wakefulness, spinning fantasies from the fabric of monochrome memory. The approaching giggles and shouts of children signal the film’s return to colour. We do not see them, but we know they are discussing a love confession, one that for an older generation might be as unreal as a midsummer night’s dream: “I wrote her a love letter…and she said yes! That’s what I call ‘direct’ love.”