Nostalgia for the Future
Avijit Mukul Kishore and Rohan Shivkumar in conversation with Amrita Gupta Singh
Amrita Gupta Singh (AGS): Nostalgia for the Future – the very name of the documentary evokes a sort of split meaning, of a longing, a remembering – inevitably tied with a future we don’t know. You both have expressed an interest in documenting ‘imagined space’ through the lens of modernity, identity and the nation. Would you say that modernity is essentially future-oriented, or utopian?
Avijit Mukul Kishore (AMK) & Rohan Shivkumar (RS): Nostalgia for the Future is centered at the moment of modernity in Indian history –from the turn of the 19th century to the early years of nation-building post-independence. The film looks at our respective praxes –architecture and documentary film making, both sought to construct the idea of the citizen and continued to do so until liberalisation in the early 1990s. The film examines that moment and the idealism it embodied through the filter of hindsight from the present day. We inhabit the future that was constructed in that moment.
The film looks at tenets of modernity that were essentially utopian. These included a break from the past, away from ossified tradition, the inequities perpetrated by the caste system and segregation by gender. The documentary films from that period are the state’s record of the spirit behind the project of nation-building. Our film is interested in looking at how both the films and the architecture made in that period mapped these ideals and the way things were played out and changed over the following decades. The film traverses multiple temporalities, often simultaneously.
AGS: In terms of form and the script, how did the collaboration between both of you take place – as filmmaker and architect-academic particularly within the kind of interdisciplinarity embedded in the process?
AMK & RS: This film brings together mid-career concerns for us both – Rohan’s as an architect-academic and Mukul’s in the act of representation through film and the joy of film-making itself. Both are concerned with the representation and construction of a citizen who inhabits these spaces. This citizen is often a fictional one – one that is written into a script, or a master plan. The collaboration on the script and the film was, therefore, fairly effortless.
AGS: What are the conceptual and formal methods you have employed while working on the theme of ‘memory’ in the documentary? The Hindi translation of nostalgia has also been positioned as ‘Intezaar’. Was this conscious play with language?
AMK & RS: The film works in multiple registers across the different time periods it deals with. It is shot on different formats – digital video, 16mm film, both color and black and white; archival footage from Films Division documentaries and excerpts from key feature films of the 1950s. The film evokes the memory of watching these images in our collective subconscious. It also uses sounds and music from the past, which came to us through films and radio. Etymologically, the word ‘nostalgia’ contains a longing for home. This was untranslatable into Hindi and we wanted a rhetorical title, of the kind state-produced documentaries often have. Therefore, Kal ka Intezaar, or waiting for tomorrow – hopefully a ‘golden’ tomorrow. It was also referring to the entire tradition of state-film-making.
AGS: How has memory permeated the architectural sites you chose to document, and how do you view the rationale of Indian modernity in these spaces? Nehru, Gandhi and Ambedkar as ideologues of our modernity appear through both their ideas and the spaces they inhabited. There is a mapping of both architectural history and of the body in this history.
AMK & RS: The first site is Lukshmi Vilas Palace, built by Sayajirao Gaekwad, in Baroda. Through this house, Sayajirao sought to wear modernity as a prosthetic. It was a performance of modernity and its progressive ideals that he sought to bring into public discourse, whether it was through the setting up of educational institutions, his support of Raja Ravi Varma, India’s first modern painter, or most importantly, of Ambedkar, who went on to frame the Indian constitution. The spirit of Sayajirao’s progressive outlook is still palpable in Baroda.
The second site is Chandigarh – the city imagined as the ideal city of the new nation which sought to break with the past. The body that was imagined as the inhabitant of this city was a naked body exposed to nature, where the extremes of the elements would make the divisions of caste, class and gender disintegrate, reinventing human relationships in a new nation. The house featured in this section is Shodhan Villa in Ahmedabad which was built for an industrialist by Le Corbusier, the architect of Chandigarh. This house is like a womb, with its darkened rooms and terraces that open to the sky. This was seen as the architecture of the primordial, where the body’s interaction with nature was about pleasure and interlocution. It is a beautiful building.
The third house is that of Gandhi, Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad. Here, the body is seen as one that is impure, due to its association with pleasure and sin, as reflected in Gandhi’s experiments with truth. The opulence and pleasure in the architecture of Nehruvian modernity stand counter to the ascetic, Spartan existence as imagined here. The house contained the barest minimum that was necessary. This came to embody the tenets of planning for the new country’s citizen through public housing.
The fourth body is one that inhabits this shell, of the basic necessities, as contained in public housing projects in Delhi, for both refugees from Pakistan post-independence and the government servants who came to occupy Delhi (and other cities) to run the institutions and administration of the newly independent nation. These houses are designed according to straightforward mathematical calculations on the space required by the family unit, which was imagined as a nuclear family.
There is a fifth body that spans all categories. This is the invisible body that falls through the cracks in all planning – the subaltern body. It refuses to and is unable to modernise as per the imaginations and desires of the state’s master plans. This body lives on the periphery of the sites mentioned above and is often the subject of the gaze of the documentary film made by both the state and the independent film maker.
AGS: What were the choices made while researching for clips from the Films Division documentaries and juxtaposing them with those from mainstream Hindi cinema? In particular, can you give an example of the location of modernity in the latter?
We were interested in the conception of the Indian citizen through the images of citizenship and the spaces that they inhabit. From the Films Division archive, we collected a series of films that projected the idealised citizen in the spaces that s/he was supposed to inhabit in the new homes and cities of the new nation. As we were interested in this projection of the ‘ideal’ citizen in the collective memory of the nation, we felt that the images of the protagonist hero of mainstream Hindi films from the 40’s and 50’s would also resonate with ideas of modernity and ideal citizenry – especially the anxiety of the city as the crucible for that modernity. The films made in that time also had a deeply moralising tone and agenda, as if they had taken on the task of building the new nation, especially in the way they portrayed the ‘hero’.
Thus, we looked at the three main icons of masculinity that were presented in Hindi films of that era -Dev Anand, Raj Kapoor and Dilip Kumar and looked at what kind of modernity they represented, and the anxiety it created. Dev Anand usually played the suave urbane man, who came from the city and who was able to navigate the modern city with elan and sometimes with some amount of small time trickery, as in Kala Bazaar or Bambai Ka Babu. In Tere Ghar Ke Samne, he plays a western-educated architect trying to mediate between two competing families – one westernised and the other ‘traditional’, who wants to display their ideas of modernity through their homes which end up looking identical to each-other. It is interesting to see this through the lens of partition and a newer generation trying to come to terms with it. Raj Kapoor, on the other hand, played an innocent from the hinterland who comes to the city, and is either shocked by the corruption he encounters, or is, in turn, corrupted by it, as in Shri 420 or Jagte Raho. In the latter, which we use in the film, we see a portion where the identity of the person is completely erased in the city, until he becomes merely another number.
The third example is the clip we use from Mehboob Khan’s Amar. Dilip Kumar usually plays the moderniser in many of his films including Madhumati or Naya Daur. In Amar, he plays a similar character – a lawyer who comes into the village bringing ideas of modernity. There he encounters a beautiful village belle, who fascinates him; and she is in turn fascinated by him and the modernity he represents. One night, while pursued by the local goon, she rushes into the home of the modern man hoping that he will be her saviour. However, instead of offering her protection, the lawyer rapes her. In the rest of the film, the guilt of the modern man forms the central storyline.
It seems, as if, as long as the object of the lawyers’ modernist proselytising was outside his own domain, he could resolve it. But when it entered his space and polluted it, he had no other way of dealing with it, except through violence. It seemed to us as if this relationship between the moderniser and the subject to be modernised was resonant of the complex and complicated relationship that the middle classes (as the truly ‘modern’ class) have with the ‘other’- both an intolerance and destruction of other identities and also a racking guilt for the erasures and violence perpetuated by the instruments of modernity.
AGS: The voice-over also seemed to be an opposing layer to the way the film was made, particularly in its uneven texture. Was this a lampooning of Films Division documentaries or the memorizing of a certain kind of performance of the nation? Urdu and English unexpectedly came in too.
AMK & RS: The voice-over takes pleasure in literary Hindi that often came to us through the state media – radio, documentary film and later television. It was also used by some fiction film makers. The film uses that associatively, takes pleasure in its sound. It is not a lampooning of Films Division documentaries at all. It starts as a reference to the documentary voice-over and subtly changes tone as the film progresses to become one that raises doubts, questions the state’s voice and ends as the citizen’s voice with a scream that hopes someone hears it. This Hindi voice-over is sometimes unsettled by using English and Urdu words for terms that cannot be translated, or just sound better in another language! In many ways, the film tries to free itself of the strictures of prescribed ways of looking, of form and language.
AGS: One key feature of the documentary was the potent subversions – particularly in the last scene of Bombay’s subaltern class performing with drums under a massive ‘modern’ flyover. The footage is dark and granular, yet it fits perfectly within the larger narrative. Why did you decide to use this recording?
AMK & RS: This sequence was essential for the film. The scene that precedes this is distraught and despondent, looking at the labour class in Gurgaon on a winter evening. Conventionally, some films might have ended on the images of the labourers’ children looking hopefully/hopelessly at the camera with skyscrapers in the background, shot on black and white 16mm film in the (beautiful?) light of the winter dusk. It was important for us to critique this gaze – the gaze of the state, or independent film maker, seeing the subaltern as victim, framed using our sense of aesthetic, which is a bourgeois, privileged aesthetic.
The end sequence of young women practicing playing large drums (Nashik dhol) under a flyover in Mumbai offsets the victimhood of the children in the previous sequence, looking at citizens who occupy the public realm with a sense of self-confidence and abandon. It is also the first time in the film that women play an active role and are not mere state-subjects, or objects to be planned for. This sequence was shot on a conventional video camera and we liked it for its underexposed and grainy look that offset the conventionally ‘aesthetic’ images of the earlier sequences.
AGS: Our contemporary moment is one of threat and vexation – with ideological battles of nationalism and homelands. What is your idea of the ‘home’ within the current discourse of development and homogenized urban planning, and how do you place your own longing?
AMK & RS: There is a curious contradiction within the democratic state about it being the vehicle through which freedom and equality can be achieved. The contradiction is that as part of this process, the democratic state has to be able to create spaces for self-critique – through voices of citizens that dissent and disagree. Yet, these processes often are seen as threatening to the very edifice of the nation-state which then clamps down on them, silencing dissent, thereby threatening the very ideals of freedom and equality it claims to uphold. There is thus a perpetually negotiated relationship being worked out between the citizen and the nation-state. The nation-state was born within certain ideological frameworks that imagined the democratic rights of the citizen. These have transformed rapidly over the past few decades as the country’s economy liberalized. A new imagination of the ‘ideal citizen’ has emerged, and this imagination tends to further alienate many who don’t conform. The nostalgia (or the longing for ‘home’) is the longing to reclaim the rights of the citizen towards equality and freedom that are enshrined in the constitution of the country.
Image courtesy: Avijit Mukul Kishore and Rohan Shivkumar