|FORM FOLLOWS FUNCTION, REALLY?
Manu Rewal interviewed by K.T. RavindranARCHITECTURE + DESIGN , March-April 2002
It is not often that one gets to see a film on architecture in India, When
such a film bags two international awards in a row, one certainly has to
sit up and take note. One at UNESCO festival for films on art, out of 35
entries from all over the world, as the best architectural film, and the
other the Jurys Award at a festival in University of Alcala de Henares
- Spain specially organized for films on architecture. Shifting through
the store houses of Indias contemporary architectural history, Manu
Rewal has culled together his new film, Le Corbusier in India (his earlier
films on New Delhi and on Mandu have also won awards) to reconstruct Le
Corbusiers forays into the complex chemistry of Nehruvian India. The
shared ideologies of a socialist, democratic polity is the platform from
where the painter-poet-architect in Le Corbusier mediated the mystical presence
of the mountains or the tender hardness of the goats head that he
is shown to caress in the film. The film covers an astonishing range of
the canvas of Corbusiers netherworlds of ideation, concealing within
its documentary-format narrative, the discomfort and birth pangs of the
icons of modern India. Through skillfully edited black and white stills
of Corbusier, interviews, carefully constructed sound tracks and an intimate
yet invasive camera, Manu Rewal recounts the historic communion between
Corbusier and his context.
To touch the pulse of the making of this film, I engaged the filmmaker in
a two hour conversation. The extracts:
What prompted you to do this
I had done a 30 minute film on Chandigarh as part of a series on architecture,
for Doordarshan. It led me to the discovery of Le Corbusier. This new
film, which is much longer ( 90minutes or 2x 52 minutes) is more on Corbusier
in India, its not only on Chandigarh .
How much time did you devote to research for
I had already done a lot of research for the
first film. The next stage was during the 50th anniversary of Chandigarh,
when I interviewed many historians and critics of architecture. also got
lots of new books. Later I went to Paris and did a lot of research at
the Le Corbusier Foundation. What one sees in the film is a very small
part of what I have recorded and researched.
During the 50th annivesary festival in
Chandigarh was the mood rather adulatory? Did that affect the way you
approached the film?
There were some people who were very strong critics
who really ripped apart Corbusier. Charles Jenks was there and he was
pretty forthright in his blanket condemnation of Corbusier. There were
many people, who gave new opinions and interesting perspectives on it.
Of course, you always have a core fan group which says everything is great.
You were obviously not trying to make a neutral
film, you were presenting a certain viewpoint?
You made a selection of professional and critics
for interviews. Only in the case of the Sarabhai House you actually interviewed
the user. Particularly in the public buildings one would have thought
it is more critical to interview the users.
Actually I did a few interviews with the people
from Chandigarh. But their answers were mirroring in many ways what the
various experts were saying. So I thought let us keep it at that level
. Anand Sarabhai had actual anecdotes to tell us about the relationship
of Corbusier and his mother and these were very revealing about Corbusier.
Le Corbusier has this awful reputation of being a dictator who decided
everything and didnt allow for any changes. But in the film you
can see that it was not always so.
In fact I found your coverage of that house the
most wholesome in the way there was an intimate relationship between your
camera and the house. There were more layers of connectively between your
filming and the subject.
In the case of Shodhan House I wasnt allowed
to film inside so I got a top view showing the complete cube. The Secretariat!
There was no question of even going near it, even pointing the camera
towards it was not possible. I got one or two shots because I was on the
roof of the Assembly building. But I covered the Assembly building quite
in detail. Especially theres one track shot, which is from the main
foyer going into the inner chamber, which was very satisfying for me.
But a lot of that would depend on the way you
had edited the film.
Actually every step in the filmmaking process
is very important because I do my films in a very intuitive way. I first
have a script after doing the research but it keeps evolving. When I do
the filming many new things come up. The moment of the filming is very
important. Thats when one is actually in touch with the subject
in a much more physical way.
The tactile quality of the walls and surfaces
that your camera was able to take in, could not have been done merely
by research. The highlight of that was when your camera moves in the High
Court to that embossed seal like thing on the wall. That is a kind of
connection that Corbusier is making with the building on a completely
different plane. You quoted in the film Corbusiers letter to his
mother where he said here is the final poem unfolding.
Nehru and the people he was talking to were initiating
him into Indian culture and India art and he himself found resonances
in his own personal mythology with India. I think there was definitely
a meeting somewhere.
Would you say that your film is more about the
relationship of the architect with the subject than about its functional
Of course that was a major factor. I end the
film on that the poem of The Right Angle, Which concludes:
With an Open Hand I received
With an Open Hand I give.
But I tried to also show what didnt work from a purely practical
If you were trying to do that you would have
also tried to develop the horizontal context of that period. You didnt
seem to have followed a chronological sequence in the way the buildings
were realized in time.
The idea was to go from first the city , then
to the buildings. The structure of the film follows a mixture of chronology,
size of the buildings and their importance in terms of the symbolic, anyway
I didnt want to follow a very rigid structure
Let us take
the High Court building. I got some interviews by Mr. Jeet Malhotra who
was very interesting and narrated in nice way. , and often-funny way where
something didnt work and compromises were made etc. I tried to show
that things were not perfect.
Sometimes you have repeated some shots.
I used some shots twice because it fitted well
there, but I dont have a fetish of not using them twice. Is it wrong
for a painter to use twice the same pattern ?
Corbusiers obsession with the tactile
quality of walls and his use of colour on concrete, both come out well
in your firlm.
Mr. Doshi wrote this very nice article on Corbusier
as the Acrobat and I think thats the kind of acrobacy he was doing.
On the one hand you have very brutalistic, strong texture of the concrete
and on the other hand you have his glazed and bright colored walls, He
was able to achieve balance between form, color, the texture , etc.
Corbusier also worked on the painting in his
own buildings and they are the very significant part of his building,
I would like you to speak about the paintings, the tapestry in the High.Court
both as an element as well as an instrument for bringing out the unease
of the judicial system with the poetry in the structures.
that was good fun to do because Mr.Jeet
Malhotra has given a nice explanation of the whole discomfort of the judges
about the tapestry and the problems it caused. I took that portion in
the interview and worked on it intuitively on the editing table you know.
I used shots of small elements within the tapestry like the thunder to
break down the interview into different sections The first time Jeet Malhotra
talks about a problem or a clash is followed by a shot of the thunder
in the tapestry and as he says a line about the conflict, I show another
form in the tapestry which acts as a kind of a punctuation mark.
So you have interwoven the tapestry with Jeet
Yeah.. I mean one tries to have fun at that leve
also with the film otherwise it can become purely educational and one
of the aims was that the audience should have fun also while watching
it. When you go through the door in the assembly you were supposed to
feel a certain cosmic feeling even if you didnt know what exactly
it meant. My aim was to convey Le Corbusiers ideas and try and convey
his poetry while maintaining a certain distance by using some filmic device
or the other.
In my own reading these buildings are what they
are because of the intensity of the poetry in them and not because they
are the best functioning assembly building or the best high court or the
best Mill Owners building. So I am looking for consistency of that
theme in the film
I have often in a slightly mischievous manner
put the hard practical reality of a building in contrast with the high
poetry and imagination of Corbusier.
Your camera pans the hard concrete surface of
the plaza, which is the most impractical thing Le Corbusier has done in
a climate like that if Chandigarh.
I shot in May specially for that reason because
I wanted to see the place when it is the most impractical and I shot also
in winter during the festivity of the 50th anniversary of Chandigarh.
But what I found the most interesting was his vision, the grand vision
and the poetry behind it which makes it more than just a functional thing
Le Corbusier came here to India to work because
the opportunity was presented to him to work with the entire entity called
I am not sure of that
I felt in my research. I spent a lot of time in Paris at the Le Corbusier
Foundation where I had access to lots of books, lots of actual documents,
lots of letters which he wrote etc. Was Corbusier more interested in doing
the city or was it the buildings of the Capitol ?
I am not sure
which was more important to him. The first plan of Chandigarh that he
inherited was simply made more systematic by him.
He gave it a rationalized structure.
He gave it more clarity. It is that transformation
in the plan that I showed in the film. There are different opinions about
Chandigarh. For instance take William Curtis. For him it is not possible
to judge a city in such a short time. 50 years is nothing in the lifetime
of the city, Chandigarh is like a new-born baby for a city.
No , but for a DNA coded city like Chandigarh
50 years is a lot of time. I would like you to speak about Prof. Bruno
Queysane, the French philosopher you interviewed in the film. He was floating
above the immediate context and spoke of the transcendental qualities
of the place. That was very interesting.
Well first of all thought it was very interesting
because he is not a professional architect but a philosopher of architecture.
He is a university professor. He definitely had a different point of view
than the architects. He had a kind of a mystic experience in Chandigarh.
Thats how he explains his whole experience. After the disorder,
confusion, pollution of contemporary India, when he entered Chandigarh
he started breathing again.. Suddenly he was in an oasis of greenery and
order. As he went to the Capitol, which is slightly higher than the city
level, he was on this platform in the midst of the symbolic elements,
the mountains, the various buildings which look like ancient monuments
and the sky, he actually had an epiphany of a kind in that place.
I think having him in your film also helps the
film locate itself between the poetic part of Corbusiers work and
its disjunction with the functional realities. There is a very big divide
between the practical and the poetic and that ambiguous space is the actual
space of the architect.
Thats what I was trying to put my
finger on throughout the film. It was totally intuitive and at that level
it is micro editing.
I am seeing it from the way ideation is structured
in your film and his interview within that structure is in a critical
location. It marked a transition.
He comes in when we are moving into the buildings
of the Capitol Complex
In the case of some of the other interviews,
though they seem to contradict one another they actually were completing
each other. Each piece kind of adds up and in the end you get a more complex
A similar approach is followed at another level ; in the
play between what the person interviewed is saying and the images which
are shown. Sometimes the images illustrate or complement what is being
said, sometimes they contradict or comment with humor if possible, on
what is being said. So there is also this intent to create a distance
between what is said by the experts and the audience.
Your instrument to generate that distance is
the visual image.
Another distancing technique was the use of womans
voice for Le Corbusier. Even in the French version I had a woman.
That was very refreshing to have a womans
voice for Le Corbusier.
Ultimately, you know the audience should be allowed
to make up their own mind. In a way I have to give them space to enter
the film. Otherwise its propaganda. Also there are places where I have
intentionally put no music, just sound and the noise of the place. In
terms of the structure of the film, as the film progresses theres
more and more of silence, and those areas of silence are increased as
we go towards the end. The more time you have in front of empty space,
the more you think. It is introduced very progressively so that you dont
realize that it exists as a specific strategy.
Why did you do that in a linear way
To me a film is like music. Unlike a painting
it is something which is a composion in time. It is linear. It has a beginning,
a middle and an end.
I wanted to put across all the historical information in the beginning
so that the audience can understand what Corbusier is all about. It is
a pedagogic way and a very structured way, but once that information is
communicated then one starts playing more with ideas, get deeper into
the objects etc. The final impact is not just based on the direct overt
statements made by the experts, but also in the subtle and subliminal
messages that come out of the different levels of interplay.
Ravindran is head of the Department of Urban Design
in the School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi and a sharp observer
of architectural evolvements.