This story is part of our DocuWalk series. Read more here.
Text by Neerja Deodhar | Photographs by Zahra Amiruddin
“Our home is the witness. It is the stage and life is theatre. It makes us as we make it. We are the things we collect as they collect us… We are where we come from. The home is the witness and no witness is mute.”
There is a vision of the city that many of us born in the 1980s and '90s, arguably privileged and upwardly mobile, grew up with in Mumbai, then Bombay. It was a vision that we inherited from our parents, who were witness first-hand to the city expanding and swallowing up several suburbs, and to a world that was marked by material progress across four decades, starting from the '60s and culminating in liberalisation.
This was a city proud of its cosmopolitanism, where trees still lined streets and children playing in maidans and neighbourhoods were a familiar sight. Now it seems as though these elements are fast disappearing from our urban landscape, or that the casteism, anti-migrant sentiment and other social divides that movies about middle-class lives dared not portray – but which always existed – have reared their ugly heads.
The notion of such an ‘ideal’ city was nurtured in homes nestled in three- and six-storied buildings and housing complexes that hadn’t yet aspired to touch the sky.
Lovely Villa, and the larger LIC Colony it is part of in the suburb of Borivali, designed by architect extraordinaire Charles Correa, is a reminder of this imagined idealism.
Its significance both as a home and in the larger context of Mumbai have been captured in a documentary of the same name by architect and urban designer Rohan Shivkumar and filmmaker-cinematographer Avijit Mukul Kishore, which seems to be part-documentation and part-love letter.
Lovely Villa is an unassuming sort of building, but this is precisely what makes it welcoming — the absence of ostentation. It is tough to not be charmed by the gardens outgrowing terraces, and the fallen flowers of the copper pod tree draping the adjoining street in a yellow hue. Where glass-and-steel buildings — found in abundance in Mumbai's business districts — can wear a look of intimidation, a building such as this embraced us with its quietude and shaded corners.
It pre-dates the idea of the ‘gated community’, which is now a regular feature of urban India, marked by exclusivity of access and a homogenous type of resident (usually upper class and caste), often with separate entries and exits for domestic helps and cleaners.
Shivkumar says that Lovely Villa and the LIC Colony, an experiment of the early modern Indian State, was an attempt to look beyond social differences.
“Of going beyond community boundaries, of living in a country where everyone is equal. This sort of imagination, and of course Charles Correa being one of the primary architects who gave shape to that vision, is an experiment of a particular period of time. It represents a certain desire for citizenship, which, I think, has changed ever since the '90s,” he adds. A look at the diversity of surnames on the building's nameplate, and details like an Ambedkar kandeel (lantern) swaying with the breeze, are affirmations of the inclusivity Shivkumar spoke of.
The housing complex and the community that would come to inhabit it were supposed to be “a mirror of the nation in miniature”. The buildings’ names, now forgotten, are ‘secular’, Shivkumar notes; we passed by other buildings called 'Hem Horizon' and 'Jeevan Terrace'.
The varying sizes of the houses contained in them meant that people from different backgrounds could afford to buy them. “This is an unusual imagination for housing then, and especially now,” he explains. When I walked up the stairs, I noticed that the entrances to the houses are a step above the landing. This may seem like an innocuous detail, but it's the sort of feature that invites one to sit down, even chat with one's neighbours during long afternoons and evenings.
The Life Insurance Corporation and the notion of nation building prevalent in the '70s and '80s are integral to the story of Lovely Villa. A complex was built for policy holders, who were paying for houses by paying their insurance premiums, and Charles Correa was invited to design it. “It’s a unique delivery mechanism of affordable housing,” Shivkumar notes.
It is unlikely that such a housing complex could be conceived of today. “After the '90s, the political scenario changed, as did the notion of what was ideal,” he says.
[There is an awareness of the proximity of a forest in Lovely Villa's design. (Right) Fossil of a plant on a rock.]
“In the design of the colony you can see many of the concepts that shaped Correa’s imagination for ideal living,” the narrator of the film says. This imagination is manifested in the way the terraces have been built, the cross ventilation in the homes, and the awareness of the physical proximity to the forest. Such details of architectural design became a vocabulary that Shivkumar learnt "by imitation, by experience". “The ghosts of where I grew up haunt every one of my first student design projects in architecture school,” he says in the film.
The sub-title of the documentary, ‘Architecture as autobiography’ opens itself up to a wide number of interpretations and connotations. One of these is the notion of people making homes, and homes in turn making their inhabitants.
“When a home is being imagined, it is seen as a container in which a person will live an ideal life... When people begin inhabiting spaces, they don’t do it in the way the architect has conceived it. They sleep in dining rooms and eat in living rooms. They begin populating it with the objects of their lives. Where is the home, really? Does it lie in the architect’s imagination of the ideal, or how people live in it? I think it lies somewhere in between,” Shivkumar says.
This reciprocal relationship between homes and their residents became evident when I saw how neatly and naturally Shivkumar and his mother fit into their house. She, admiring the newly bloomed flowers in her terrace garden, he, unconsciously choosing to sit at the spot where the terrace and the living room are conjoined. And though no one was singing or playing music when I visited, it was not difficult to imagine the strains of a tanpura coming from the peaceful music room.
Three voices anchor the narrative in the documentary: Kishore sets the historical context of the suburb, about how the original inhabitants of the forest which embraces the housing complex were refugees from Pakistan. Their barrack-like homes are at a short distance from Lovely Villa, and it seemed as though we were the only people to have made a visit in the recent past. A majority of these homes lay abandoned, a layer of dust covering remnants of lives lived.
The second voice is the director and his sister Sonal recounting memories from years ago; there are photographs and videos of everyday life at home, of people resting, being happy and celebrating. The third is in a section titled ‘The Primitive Hut’, where Shivkumar and Sonal’s words coalesce, where sentences disintegrate into fragments and the nature of meaning changes.
“On the edge of this memory lies an island of hope
Oceans rise and fall, the grass sways as we make like stars on the screen of night sky
Constellations mirror our limbs, we dance.
Our bodies positioned still. But freer than ever.”
[(Right) Rohan Shivkumar and (Left) photographs of his parents.]
The documentary features archival footage of the city from the '70s, personal photographs taken in the '90s and 2000s, and even the history of the suburb before the establishment of any human settlement, when it was merely land and river. Upon embarking on a short walk in the forest nearby, it seemed as though we had entered a wholly different world, in a different age. Dense trees filtered the little sunlight that overcast day offered, and rocks bore fossilised imprints of leaf and twig.
Kishore says this flitting between the past and present allowed the duo to expand the story and place it within a larger context. Shivkumar also sees it as being about ghosts and time.
“The thing about architecture is this: after you leave, your presence here exists as a kind of haunting. The spaces themselves, although they seem to be brick and stone, continue to be haunted by those memories.
The idea of longing is important when an architect is making a drawing – she is populating it with future inhabitants. We’re imagining that there are ghosts of these futures who are going to sit here, sleep there… It is about desire in a sense. What is a ghost after all? An apparition of something you desire, or fear,” he says.
[The original inhabitants of the forest which embraces the housing complex were refugees from Pakistan, who lived in barrack-like structures, some of which now lie abandoned.]
After a certain point, the film becomes progressively more personal, centering on the director’s father, his idiosyncrasies, and what he meant to the family. The viewer knows that though the news of his death is delivered softly, the loss still lingers. The directors meditate on the idea of order and chaos through this.
“Every process of evolution includes a negation – of the past, of tradition, of oneself. What made us who we are. In other words, every process of growth must include in some way the death of the father.”
Lovely Villa is by turns political, personal and philosophical. Philosophical, because it asks how architecture makes order out of chaos. “The father is the archetype of order in the family, that we use to make sense of the world. The father is, in some sense, the architecture of order,” Shivkumar explains. Over the course of time, all senses of order begin to disintegrate; there’s the loss of the father, the loss of the world one grew up in, and finally, the loss of the truth and who we are.
“The film is grappling with making sense of the world, and every time one attempts to do this, it seems insufficient, and inevitable that it will collapse. But one feels again the need to restructure and reconstruct one’s identity,” Shivkumar says.
The documentary ends with a part borrowed from a black-and-white Buster Keaton film titled One Week, released in 1920, which features a married couple trying desperately to keep together a house that is constantly falling apart and is beyond their control. Kishore and Shivkumar made use of repetitive visuals to achieve an effect of instability. The house is beaten down by extreme weather and finally destroyed by a train when the couple tries to relocate it. They watch on as their house has crumbled into nothing.
It’s a fitting epilogue to Lovely Villa’s meditations on the tension between the body and architecture; of order and chaos; and of how we build and rebuild houses through one lifetime.