Documentary channel

Architecture, Films Division lore and nation-building find a home in ‘Nostalgia for the Future’

Avijit Mukul Kishore and Rohan Shivkumar simultaneously analyse modernist architectural traditions and the state-sponsored documentary.

The tantalisingly named Nostalgia for the Future is a documentary about two kinds of architecture. One is better known – the modernist traditions that resulted in the imaginative and pioneering private and public structures explored by the film, including Laxmi Vilas Palace in Vadodara and Le Corbusier’s Chandigarh and his Shodhan Villa in Ahmedabad.

The other is the architecture of the classic Films Division documentary, which is invoked in the opening credits – an amalgamation of different FD typefaces – and continues throughout the film.

The FD production has been directed by Avijit Mukul Kishore, the cinematographer and filmmaker of such documentaries as Vertical Zero, To Let The World In and Electric Shadows, and Rohan Shivkumar, Deputy Director of Kamla Raheja Vidyanidhi Institute for Architecture and Environment Studies. The narrative is a conscious throwback to the FD style (which has since been parodied): there is a “Voice of God” commentary in Hindi (by Kishore), which elaborates on the confluence of modernity and nation-building in the pre-independence and post-1947 periods and the neglect of this tradition in later years, manifest in public housing projects in Delhi. The gorgeously shot footage, by Kishore, meshes clips from FD titles with grainy and shaky 16mm footage of contemporary scenes. Finally, there is the ruminative and often gnomic script, written by the filmmakers.

In an email interview, Kishore and Shivkumar address questions on the film’s form, the doubled-edged meaning of nostalgia, and the use of commentary in a film about images, perceptions and the emotions bound to built forms.

‘Nostalgia for the Future’ makes conscious use of FD tropes – the Voice of God, the anthropological thrust of the imagery, a script with a focus on ideas and philosophy and the emphasis on Nehruvian modernity. Why did you choose this particular narrative style?
The film emerged out of an anxiety about the certainties that underpin the discourses around both documentary film and architecture/urban planning. Each of these is burdened with a utilitarian role and each therefore has to base itself on a ‘truth’. This is even more significant when both disciplines are part of making a nation.

So the film is not so much about architecture per se, as it is about the body of the citizen and the way it is constructed in the idea of the home – whether that is the nation, or the house.

Laxmi Vilas Palace in Vadodara. Courtesy Films Division.
Laxmi Vilas Palace in Vadodara. Courtesy Films Division.

Did the film emerge from your engagement with architecture as well as your fascination with the history of Films Division over the past few years?
Both. The film emerged out of the anxieties of each of our respective professions – filmmaking and architecture and the role they played in making modern India. The premise of the film is an exploration of some of the conceptual underpinnings of the Indian nation.

The modern urge to transform the world, to make it better for the future by radically breaking with the past, is contrasted with the concept of nostalgia as a longing for home (etymologically). What happens when this home is the body of the citizen and a mirror of the nation? What kind of radical transformations does each undergo in the thrust towards modernity?

There is nostalgia for the future, but is there also nostalgia for a certain kind of information-led and high-minded documentary that is now a curio?
Is the information-led documentary a curio? Not really. It takes other forms. And more than nostalgia, the film uses it as a reference, a frame to contextualise both nation-building and communication. Documentary and architecture continue to be embedded with messages and are an integral part of image-making and history-writing for a culture.

Why did you choose the places we see in the film: Baroda, Chandigarh, Ahmedabad and Delhi?
The film explores five ways in which the new nation, the body and the home were conceived of by the modern Indian state.

The first place where this performance of modernity takes place is the Laxmi Vilas Palace in Baroda. The story of the progressive Maharajah’s costume of modernity is important in the way it led to a particular mix of Indian and Western in his home. His patronage of Raja Ravi Varma as India’s first modern painter is significant, as is his support of Ambedkar’s education at Columbia.

The second body is that in Nehruvian modernity – the “naked body” in communion with nature. Chandigarh epitomises this, as does the Shodhan Villa in Ahmedabad, which was built by Le Corbusier.

The third body is where the sensuality of the body is seen as unreliable – a vehicle for pleasure and sin. This is Gandhian imagination of Spartan living in his Sabarmati Ashram.

The fourth body removes even this spirit and is left as plain material to be sculpted into being a part of the machine that is the nation. This machine body is housed in the mass-produced systems of the refugee colonies in New Delhi and the Delhi Development Authority.

The fifth body is the body that is the object to be modernised, the subaltern body. This body is mapped and projected into this modernity through the instruments of the state – architecture and filmmaking (FD included). It cannot ever live up to the expectations from it. Instead, it finds other means of claiming its freedom. This body exists throughout the film and emerges in full in the last sequences in Gurgaon and Mumbai.

Shodhan Villa in Ahmedabad. Courtesy Films Division.
Shodhan Villa in Ahmedabad. Courtesy Films Division.

Some of the present-day footage has been shot on 16mm and celluloid.
The film looked at how certain textures and modes of image-making make meaning. The beauty of the celluloid image denotes and evokes a particular sense of nostalgia in us, which we sought to both celebrate and disturb. We shot sequences in both colour and black and white (and processed these in Berlin), used the deep red filter on black and white to create extreme tonalities to play with the drama of remembering. We meant to create what could possibly have been home movies of the time.

Our 16mm footage mixed with archival footage from FD was an attempt to both evoke and disrupt this sense of nostalgia – to ask whose nostalgia we were actually evoking?

Some of the statements in the film are academic and even gnomic – “This architecture strips the act of living into the most primal. The boundary between man and nature becomes erotic. A place for pleasure and confrontation.” Why did you opt for this narration?
There was a lot of debate about the mode and the nature of the voiceover. Did it have to clarify or question? Was it meant to explain or evoke? We decided on the latter. The language was meant to emerge from the Voice of God but rather than explicate, which VOGs generally do, it was to provide another layer on the images, an aural aspect.

The Hindi was chosen for its texture and for the meanings it has within. So was the nature of the language itself, which slips between the descriptive to the poetic to the academic. It meant to evoke ideas that may or may not make complete sense in the first viewing. The speed and tonality of the voice – trying to keep it as flat as possible was also intentional – to let the words themselves evoke images.

There is also a slippage between the Hindi in the voiceover with the sudden and unexpected use of Urdu and English words. This slippage allows for something else to emerge and the subtitles add another layer of meaning that doesn’t always mirror the spoken text – it can’t.

Nostalgia for the Future. Courtesy Films Division.
Nostalgia for the Future. Courtesy Films Division.
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London then and now – As experienced by Indians

While much has changed, the timeless quality of the city endures.

“I found the spirit of the city matching the Bombay spirit. Like Bombay, the city never sleeps and there was no particular time when you couldn’t wander about the town freely and enjoy the local atmosphere”, says CV Manian, a PhD student in Manchester in the ‘80s, who made a trip to London often. London as a city has a timeless quality. The seamless blend of period architecture and steel skyscrapers acts as the metaphor for a city where much has changed, but a lot hasn’t.

The famed Brit ‘stiff upper lip, for example, finds ample validation from those who visited London decades ago. “The people were minding their business, but never showed indifference to a foreigner. They were private in their own way and kept to themselves.” Manian recollects. Aditya Dash remembers an enduring anecdote from his grandmother’s visit to London. “There is the famous family story where she was held up at Heathrow airport. She was carrying zarda (or something like that) for my grandfather and customs wanted to figure out if it was contraband or not.”

However, the city always housed contrasting cultures. During the ‘Swinging ‘60s’ - seen as a precursor to the hippie movement - Shyla Puri’s family had just migrated to London. Her grandfather still remembers the simmering anti-war, pro-peace sentiment. He himself got involved with the hippie movement in small ways. “He would often talk with the youth about what it means to be happy and how you could achieve peace. He wouldn’t go all out, but he would join in on peace parades and attend public talks. Everything was ‘groovy’ he says,” Shyla shares.

‘Groovy’ quite accurately describes the decade that boosted music, art and fashion in a city which was till then known for its post-World-War austerities. S Mohan, a young trainee in London in the ‘60s, reminisces, “The rage was The Beatles of course, and those were also the days of Harry Belafonte and Ella Fitzgerald.” The likes of The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd were inspiring a cultural revolution in the city. Shyla’s grandfather even remembers London turning punk in the ‘80s, “People walking around with leather jackets, bright-colored hair, mohawks…It was something he would marvel at but did not join in,” Shyla says.

But Shyla, a second-generation Londoner, did join in in the revival of the punk culture in the 21st century. Her Instagram picture of a poster at the AfroPunk Fest 2016 best represents her London, she emphatically insists. The AfroPunk movement is trying to make the Punk culture more racially inclusive and diverse. “My London is multicultural, with an abundance of accents. It’s open, it’s alive,” Shyla says. The tolerance and openness of London is best showcased in the famous Christmas lights at Carnaby Street, a street that has always been popular among members of London’s alternate cultures.

Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)
Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)

“London is always buzzing with activity. There are always free talks, poetry slams and festivals. A lot of museums are free. London culture, London art, London creativity are kept alive this way. And of course, with the smartphones navigating is easy,” Shyla adds. And she’s onto something. Manian similarly describes his ‘80s rendezvous with London’s culture, “The art museums and places of interest were very illustrative and helpful. I could tour around the place with a road map and the Tube was very convenient.” Mohan, with his wife, too made the most of London’s cultural offerings. “We went to see ‘Swan Lake’ at the Royal Opera House and ‘The Mousetrap’ by Agatha Christie. As an overseas graduate apprentice, I also had the pleasure to visit the House of Lords and take tea on the terrace.”

For the casual stroller along London’s streets today, the city would indeed look quite different from what it would’ve to their grandparents. Soho - once a poor suburb known for its crime and sex industry - is today a fashionable district of upmarket eateries and fashion stores. Most of the big British high street brands have been replaced by large international stores and the London skyline too has changed, with The Shard being the latest and the most impressive addition. In fact, Shyla is quite positive that her grandfather would not recognise most of the city anymore.

Shyla, though, isn’t complaining. She assures that alternate cultures are very much alive in the city. “I’ve seen some underground LGBT clubs, drag clubs, comedy clubs, after midnight dance-offs and empty-warehouse-converted parties. There’s a space for everybody.” London’s cosmopolitan nature remains a huge point of attraction for Indian visitors even today. Aditya is especially impressed by the culinary diversity of London and swears that, “some of the best chicken tikka rolls I have had in my life were in London.” “An array of accents flood the streets. These are the people who make London...LONDON,” says Shyla.

It’s clear that London has changed a lot, but not really all that much. Another aspect of Indians’ London experience that has remained consistent over the past decades is the connectivity of British Airways. With a presence in India for over 90 years, British Airways has been helping generations of Indians discover ‘their London’, just like in this video.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of British Airways and not by the Scroll editorial team.