A scientist, a philosopher, a magician, an artist and a writer – these are the things Anand Gandhi wanted to become as a child. As he grew older, Gandhi realised he could be all of these as a filmmaker.
And the result is Ship of Theseus, Gandhi’s debut feature film that has wowed audiences and critics at film festivals worldwide.
Directed and co-written by Gandhi, this independent film tells the stories of a visually challenged photographer, a Jain monk and a stockbroker. He uses organ transplantation as a metaphor to ask questions about the human body, beauty, non-violence, ethics and values.
“Since the age of 13 or 14, many ideas were evolving in my mind,” says Gandhi about the genesis of Ship of Theseus. Such as, is it really possible to be non-violent? Can there be a global, objective measure of beauty? Then there were the questions we had as teenagers, when we were rebelling against the values we were brought up with.”
As a 19-year-old, Gandhi came across the Greek paradox of Ship of Theseus — the question of whether an object, which has had all its components replaced, remains fundamentally the same. He was fascinated.
Later, even as he explored his ideas in bits and pieces in short films Right Here Right Now (2003) and Continuum (2006), the paradox stayed with him. When he was finally ready to make a feature film, the paradox became a “great springboard to study all those ideas together”. “The idea of identity, and of it being in a constant state of flux, could become a great thread for bringing the other ideas together, I thought,” he says. “Organ transplantation became the clearest narrative metaphor for representing this flux in the constantly changing body, because the change is immediate and visible.”
With its expansive shots and interplay of light and shadow – courtesy Pankaj Kumar’s cinematography – Ship of Theseus has been called a visual masterpiece. “Pankaj and I always imagined that when we make a feature film, it would have the aesthetic appeal, the colours and mood of Solitary Sandpiper (Kumar’s short film) and the dynamic, dramatic and narrative appeal of Right Here, Right Now.”
It is apparent that Gandhi rejects the rote. “Right from my childhood, I’ve been driven by scientific enquiry. Everything has followed from there.” He considers thinkers Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett as his inspirations.
And yet, at the age of 19, Gandhi was writing for Ekta Kapoor’s regressive soaps Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi (the longest-running serial on Indian television) and Kahaani Ghar Ghar Kii. “That was a very small part of the things I’ve done. I can’t think of it as a bookend in my growth or evolution.”
While writing for the two soaps, he was also doing theatre and writing plays. “I was also working with a website (altindia.net) set up by writer Abhay Mehta, who wrote the book Power Play: A Study of the Enron Project (the Enron-Dhabol project).”
Gandhi admires Austrian director Michael Haneke and Swedish director Roy Andersson. Obviously, he doesn’t agree with the content and culture of Bollywood films. He has not seen an Indian film in a while, as he found “nothing exciting". “I saw two documentaries last year that I loved: Nishtha Jain’s Gulabi Gang and Anand Patwardhan’s Jai Bhim Comrade.”
But while the budgets and returns of mainstream Bollywood films are scaling astronomical heights, is the future bleak for low-budget alternative cinema in India? Gandhi does not think so. “There is an exponentially growing audience, which is unhappy with the content Indian producers are churning out and is migrating to European cinema, American television and Iranian cinema,” he says.
“The second kind of audience has seen mostly Hollywood films on TV, YouTube videos and TED talks. They are asking why Indian filmmakers are not making movies that match up to the rest of the world. These are the growing groups of audiences, who will fulfil the economic need for independent cinema to prosper.” Gandhi notes that three years ago, “it was difficult to convince people that a film like Ship of Theseus could be commercially viable.”
“Now, wherever I go, there is a constant conversation about financing this kind of cinema.” Hitting Indian theatres on July 19, Ship of Theseus will release in Delhi/NCR, Mumbai, Kolkata, Bengaluru and Pune. Hyderabad was chosen for screening through an online vote.
Gandhi believes that the future of indie film promotion lies in social media. “Independent cinema depends on community participation. It’s very important for me to know my audience firsthand, because the cinema I make is not an intrusion or an imposition,” he says. “I cannot bombard people with hoardings and advertising. My film requires active participation even while it is being watched, and that becomes even more relevant while marketing it.”