The evocatively titled Lovely Villa is a documentary about the links between architecture and emotion, memories of childhood and adolescence – and two fathers.

One of them is the real father of the director of the film, Rohan Shivkumar. The other is a spiritual patriarch, the brilliant architect Charles Correa, who designed the housing complex to which Shivkumar’s family moved in the 1970s. Lovely Villa uses elements of personal documentary – photographs, philosophical voiceovers, home video footage – to explore the manner in which residents’ lives were influenced by Correa’s vision for “a mirror of the nation, in miniature”.

The colony came up in 1970. The Life Insurance Corporation, which had been set up in 1956, offered policy holders the opportunity to buy apartments in the colony once their policies matured. Among the buyers were Shivkumar’s parents. Correa’s design for LIC Colony represented his “idea of ideal living”, a voiceover says in the film. This was expressed by such details as terraces, “tube-like apartments with large openings on both sides that allowed cross-ventilation” and varying apartment sizes that encouraged people of different income groups to live in the same building.

Years later, when Shivkumar trained to be an architect, he found that his early designs were influenced by his formative years in Lovely Villa.

Filmmaker and cinematographer Avijit Mukul Kishore has cinematography and associate director credits on the Public Service Broadcasting Trust production. Kishore and Shivkumar had previously collaborated on the 2017 documentary Nostalgia for the Future, which explores modernist traditions in Indian architecture. (Both documentaries will be screened in a double bill organised by Asia Society on Saturday at the Films Division in Mumbai.)

In an email interview, Shivkumar, who is the Deputy Director of Kamla Raheja Vidyanidhi Institute for Architecture and Environment Studies, explained the ideas that underpin Lovely Villa. Edited excerpts.

Are there connections to be drawn between ‘Lovely Villa’ and Nostalgia for the Future’?
Lovely Villa is a culmination of many of the ideas that Mukul and I have been interested in in some of our other work. We are interested in exploring the nature of Indian modernity within our own disciplines, him as a filmmaker and me as an architect.

To some extent, Lovely Villa is a follow-up to Nostalgia for the Future. It was interested in exploring modernity, the idea of citizenship and the architecture of homes that were built to clothe this ideal citizen. Lovely Villa was the logical extension of that interest.

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Lovely Villa (2019).

In the 1970s, an insurance policy could get you an apartment in suburban Mumbai. Given the severe housing crunch in Mumbai today, how far have we come – or have we, in fact, regressed?
For better or worse, in the early years of Independence, the state saw itself as responsible for the provision of housing for its citizens. There were many schemes and projects that allowed it to experiment with different ideas. One of these was the Own Your Home scheme for policy holders that the LIC Colony was built under.

After liberalisation and the state stepping back from the responsibility of providing housing while facilitating private developers to do so, these possibilities disappeared. With profit being the primary motive of developers, the diverse approaches to housing seemed to reduce, with the typical apartment block becoming the default mode through which many buildings were built. Housing projects began to cater to the aspirations of the middle classes for exclusive apartments – which meant a way for them to distance themselves from the city and its differences, whether they be those of caste, class or religion.

Several ideas are folded into the narrative. There is the exploration of Charles Correa’s vision; the reminiscences about your family; the ways in which Lovely Villa has changed over the years.
One of the conceits of the film is the metonymic possibilities that the metaphor of architecture allows. As an imagination of order, it evokes the archetype of the father and by extension the paternalistic nation-state. We were interested in exploring these resonances across the film – as ideas of order that can provide structure to make sense of the world and how every process of growth must and does include a critique of that imagined order, along with a need to challenge and break it.

Correa’s work in housing represented an important moment in Indian architecture and the nation-state. My father came of age in that imagination of the nation. He studied at the Indian Institute of Technology and Indian Institute of Science and moved to Bombay to work at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research. The film was always meant to be an exploration of the themes of power, order and identity through an autobiographical lens.

A blueprint for Lovely Villa. Courtesy Charles Correa Foundation.
A blueprint for Lovely Villa. Courtesy Charles Correa Foundation.

The film also has several points of view – there is you, your sister, Sonal, and Mukul as the cinematographer and associate director.
The film was imagined as a kaleidoscopic portrait. There are four kinds of gaze in the film, each with its own distinctive voice and image. The first is the detached conceptual voice that speaks of large, abstract ideas. It sees the community through arcs of history and the philosophical imagination of the nation and home that underpin most architecture.

The second voice describes the physical form of the colony. This includes looking at the organisation of spaces and the architectural details that directly shape our day-to-day lives. The third point of view is the personal – descriptive, often nostalgic and sometimes ironic. The fourth point of view is one that is fragmented and disturbed. It emerges from trauma and anxiety, veering between raw self-expression and detached analysis.

While personal films are deeply intimate and specific, they also have a universal quality. What are the entry points into your film for a viewer who did not grow up in LIC Colony or have the life you did?
We wanted to avoid the tendency for personal films to become maudlin and narcissistic. The themes that we focus on in the film are the role that architecture plays shaping our experience of the world, family, adolescence and memory.

As architects, when we make a drawing, we populate them with the spectres who we see inhabiting the spaces in the future. Later, after the building has been built, every space is haunted by the memories of the people who once inhabited that space.

These images take on many forms – architectural drawings, old photographs and videos. We wanted to evoke the sense of different times by using a lot of found material. This material came from a variety of sources, but primarily from drawings and archival photographs that were generously given to us by the Charles Correa Archive, the Films Division Archive and the personal archive of videos, photos and sound recordings from my family.

Lovely Villa. Courtesy Charles Correa Foundation.
Lovely Villa. Courtesy Charles Correa Foundation.

Do you still live at LIC Colony – and does the rest of your family?
I do not live in LIC Colony anymore. My sister Sonal moved out just a few months back to her own apartment once she was married. My mother still lives in the same apartment.

The first inhabitants of LIC were mostly recent migrants into the city. Today their children have grown up and many have left. Those who continue to stay have had children of their own, and you can see them in the same spaces that we used to play in, although the nature of public life has changed substantially.

Some of the spaces that were public have been cordoned off because of security concerns – both real and imagined. The uninterrupted open space, as designed by Correa, allowed one to go from one end of the colony to the other without crossing the main road. That has been broken up into fragments. This has meant that many of these spaces that were maintained because of the public presence in them are now disused and overgrown.

When we were growing up, it was common to see much more wildlife in the colony, including the odd snake. Many of the open-to-sky terraces have been covered up by families wanting more internal space for living. But even now, some of the main public spaces of the colony continue to be hubs where community activities take place. The core design principles seem to have been able to retain the unusually green open spaces that give the colony its unique identity.

Lovely Villa director Rohan Shivkumar.
Lovely Villa director Rohan Shivkumar.

Also read:

Charles Correa: The architect whose heart beat for Mumbai ‒ ‘a wonderful city, terrible place’

I became an architect because of toy trains: An essay by Charles Correa

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