Only two decades ago, Gurgaon was merely a vast tract of fertile, hinterland territory. It is now the ‘Millennial City of Gurugram’, an identity so formidable, that the land’s rich, mythological heft — it is believed that warrior academy run by Guru Dronacharya, the royal preceptor to both the heroes and villains in Mahabharata, was situated here — now lies largely ignored. Today’s Gurgaon, a giant, self-multiplicating organism, with its plethora of office complexes, apartment towers, golf courses and shopping malls, is the poster child of newly globalized India.
Around the world, mid-20th century urban architecture sought to shape itself around the ideas of inclusion and accommodation. Since land was limited, and reclamation slow, we prepared designs to colonise the sky: vertical cities were declared the future. There is little doubt that high-rises are indeed the only plausible solution to the paucity of land and the pressure exerted by an incoming immigrant population. However, the modular structure and design of the modern high-rise, has also ensured that it has now become a mechanism that perpetuates class division and segregation.
The layout of the private island of a prototypical apartment complex — sovereign, privatised; with the lives of its residents furnished with all the essential details: full-time security, water, back up electricity, parks, gyms, shops — results in the cultivation of a curious contrast between those who are inside, and conversely, those who are outside. High-rise architecture becomes therefore, in a country with a deeply entrenched, feudal past, a physical embodiment of class hierarchies. This architecture of segregation, not unique to modern cities, was prevalent in several oppressively capitalistic societies all the way from feudal Japan, ancient Rome to colonised Africa. The following set of films stands for the enormous role that urban architecture plays in sustaining and then preserving all manners of social and economic segregation.
Long-term residents of Noida often reminisce of a time – a habit shared by individuals in cities across various cities in the country – of ‘a simpler time’. It is worth inquiry what exists within the historical composition of this notion of simplicity, and as a corollary, the precise upheavals in the ensuing years that have induced, according to these chroniclers, the vast set of complications that permeate through the life of the city as it is now. It is beyond doubt that Noida seems to teeter precariously on various, narrow ledges: historical, but geographical, too. Its very conception serves as an occasion for irony: a ‘new’ suburb that could serve as a model for urban living of the future, conceived however by a feudalistic, primitive regime. This, but also its location: between the alleged modernity and organization of the national capital and the entirely Dionysian chaos of Western Uttar Pradesh. In the context of this knowledge, it is perhaps not too outrageous to deduce in Noida a curious paradox – a city that employs an immense matrix of surfaces, of exteriors, of facades, to conceal (or make acceptable) the barbarism that lays at its very heart. ‘Only twenty years ago’, say the same residents, ‘this whole city was barren, a forest’. Even if all of this mythical forest has now been razed to the ground to install, in its place, a regime of strict geometry, two decades is not enough time to exorcise all the ghosts that lurked within it.
The present series of films therefore explores Noida as a place in perpetual limbo; a site of manufactured, artificial order, which subsides on occasion to reveal the residues of a feral past. The included titles will contemplate various universes that think of the seeming opposites of order and chaos, sophistication and crudity, decent and vulgar as essentially, being inseparable. It is useful to learn that the residents of Bisrakh, a village that exists a few kilometers away from the grandest construction project in Noida, believe that it is the birthplace of Ravan, the mythological supervillain. The films in the series posit that the grand project of civilization in Noida (or in all the suburbs across the third-world) may infact, only be a simulation.
William Dalrymple’s seminal account, The City of Djinns, in an attempt to explicate its title, volunteers for its reader a singular urban legend: ‘it is said’, the book claims, ‘that each house in Delhi has its own resident Djinn.’ These omnipresent tenants are not however, the sole metaphysical proprietors of our imperial legacy; souls of various aggrieved British officers and their wives too roam the corridors of Delhi’s ancient structures.
New Delhi is after all, rather fertile for trauma. It is a place where so much is left behind: its most prominent monuments, the gardens that outlay in front of these, its axial road network, its wide vistas – all of these are very present reminders of the city’s recent trysts with imperialism. These symbols are all visible and present; they besiege and define the existence of the average citizen in Delhi. It is also true, however, that residents live lives that are bracketed within gigantic, invisible systems of a colonial origin: taxation, bureaucracy, primary education, laws that relate to expression and its curtailment, public transportation, etc.
It is not difficult to posit that all of these markers – whether visible or invisible – ambush the consciousness of the aware individual on a daily basis. The present series of films seeks to examine – beyond the anecdotal and the nostalgic – the mental collateral of several successive generations of imperialism. These will also contemplate how imperialist rule can essentially debilitate a society’s confidence in itself. It is the concern of the series to investigate actively the extent of the crisis of identity prevalent in a society that persists in its efforts to move forward into the future, while lugging with it a past that rests heavy on its shoulders.
During the screening of the Lumière brothers film Arrival Of A Train At Ciotat (1895), the audience bolted to the door, soiled with fear and panic, under the illusion that the train running across the screen in front of them was actually going to drive into them. It maybe the stuff of urban legends, but if anything at all, such an emotional reaction unveils cinema’s power to make the audience surrender to the illusions of reality that it concocts. The art of production design in cinema is about creating the illusory visual worlds within which narratives unfold, and it goes to painstaking lengths in detailing every aspect of such worlds to make us believe in its reality. It also defines the mood, atmospherics and emotional texture of films. However, its role barely concludes there.
In certain films, the visual elements in design — the architecture, colour palettes, lighting and textures — coalesce in creative ways to reflect the interior, emotional states of characters. Filmmaker Luis Buñuel once said, “Cinema will serve as translator of architecture’s boldest dreams” and that “it provides a risk free environment in which to explore the possibilities of emotional transference”. Since directors are able to practice architecture without the rules and regulations of gravity and life, architecture becomes the architecture of meaning. Because of this, film becomes a very accessible medium for exploring emotionally embodied architecture. By inhabiting the character’s psyche, cinematic design becomes a crucial tool of characterization.
The following series of films is centered on production design, but looks beyond its rudimentary functions in order to explore its nature as visual summarisation, a mode of expressing a character’s inner psychological architecture. The list is inclusive of films across the spectrum: highly stylized films which are more expressionistic in nature and draw more attention to themselves with their use of dramatic lighting and exaggerated sets, and films with a realistic design that employ natural, often environmental settings that symbolically distill the psychologies of the individuals that journey through them.
To further illustrate the ambition of our curatorial strategy, the venues for the screenings will simulate the primary environment or setting present with each film, giving the audience an opportunity to participate in an immersive experience.