“Some like it, some dislike it. It is totally immaterial whether you like it or not. It is the biggest job of its kind in India. That is why I welcome it,” said Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru of the new city whose conception he had initiated. “It is the biggest because it hits you on the head, because it makes you think. You may squirm at the impact, but it makes you think and imbibe new ideas. And the one thing that India requires in so many fields is to be hit on the head, so that you may think.”

Chandigarh — for that was the subject of Nehru’s dream of newness — was not just a city; it was a new design for living. Or, as the makers of a new documentary called Nostalgia for the Future put it, it was the place where Indian modernity hoped to start erasing the divides between our various homes: the body, the community, the country. In Rohan Shivkumar and Avijit Mukul Kishore’s cinematic essay, Chandigarh’s starkness was designed to place the body naked against the sky, without the covering of community.

Kishore and Shivkumar glide elegantly between various conceptions of domestic modernity in India. At the Lukshmi Vilas Palace in Baroda, built as a home in 1880 by the late Maharaja Sayaji Rao Gaekwad, we linger over fountain-filled courtyards and European-style classical statues. But we also see the freestyle mix-and-match that characterised this 19th-century monarch’s conception of the self and the home: European stained-glass with Indian faces and bodies etched on them, or Raja Ravi Varma paintings where our Puranic characters received Western-style artistic treatment — and fair skins. The voice-over pronounces that imitation might be the necessary origin of modernity. It is, I think, a provocative reversal of the usual critique of tradition — it is traditional ways of being and creating that are, in Western modernity, dismissed as merely imitative. Modernity is supposed to grant us the great gift of originality. And yet, we in the colonised non-West, how were we to become modern except by performing modernity as told to us?

The dilemma of performance and truth lies, of course, at the centre of much anthropological thinking — not just about being modern, but about being human. Doesn’t the external performance of something — be it grief as expressed in the ritual mourning of death, or an event like Moharram, or gender as expressed in clothes — help produce it internally?

Kishore and Shivkumar do not quite go there, but their interest in the home as a sort of costume ( poshaak ) for the self allows for one of the film’s clever dancing segues: as we speak of Sayaji Rao’s contribution to Indian modernity, we move to Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar, who was educated at the Maharaja’s behest, and from there to Ambedkar’s homes: the BIT chawl in what was then Bombay, and the Western-style home in Dadar Hindu colony. The Western was for this Dalit man, as it would be for many others who followed, a way of escaping the oppressive clothing of caste — and the film moves seamlessly from his home to his conscious public adoption of the Western-style suit (an unusual clothing statement for an Indian politician, even today).

But the film is by no means a purely analytic essay: it is a poetic and cinematic meditation on form that itself takes form seriously. Right from the opening credits, which are a series of ‘Films Division presents’ titling shots, it both borrows and subverts the form of the traditional documentary.

Shivkumar, who is an architect and academic, wrote the script for this collaboration between him and Kishore, which Kishore then rendered into a Hindi that is superbly evocative of the old school Doordarshan voice-over, while departing from the pedagogic certainties that it would lead us to expect. “The burden we began with is that of the architect: that he knows,” said Shivkumar after a screening of the film at Delhi’s India International Centre. “But most of the time, we just pretend to know, because that’s what is expected of us.”

Nostalgia for the Future , happily, is not a film that pretends to know. Instead it delights in unexpected associations and encounters, between words and images, between thoughts. The engineering mindset comes to us via the jaunty figure of Sunil Duty, his white shirt “like the moon on a dark night”. Alongside shots of post-Partition refugee housing in Delhi, we see black-and-white photographs of Kishore’s own childhood home(s), sometimes with himself in them. In the usual playful but quiet tenor of Kishore’s work, no attention is drawn to this important fact.

At another moment, the use of “ poshaak ” in the voice-over pre-empts a neat cut to Gandhi taking off a piece of clothing, and the idea of Gandhi’s body as the source of both sinfulness and sainthood. His power, as we all knew instinctively, was based on his control of his own body. And that was what satyagraha was meant to grant us: all we had was control of our bodies, and exercising that would somehow set us free.

As Shivkumar said during the discussion, “architecture is one of those strange disciplines that has the job of creating betterness. So it bears the burden of hope.” The nostalgia of the film’s title is for that hope of Nehruvian citizenhood: the unmarked modern Indian citizen that architecture was meant to mould us into, but that we never became.

Trisha gupta is a writer and critic based in Delhi; @chhotahazri