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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