Anand Gandhi has a bit of a mad scientist air about him. At 32, the playwright-screenwriter-filmmaker already sports an unruly mass of almost completely grey hair, giving him an Einstein-esque appearance. He’s a terrible time-manager and, by his own admission, is a habitual late-comer. He once arrived for a meeting at Anurag Kashyap’s office exactly 24 hours after the time of appointment.
However, when he does arrive, he moves with a lot of urgency, and his eyes pierce into yours as he speaks passionately about everything from religion to, of course, cinema. “Cinema is the most complete art form that exists today,” he says. “It is the only medium that is truly capable of acting as a mirror to humanity.”
Unlike some of his contemporaries, Gandhi doesn’t need to be intoxicated to spout such profundities. He’s a “simple Gujju boy”, he says, who doesn’t smoke or drink. Last month, when HT met him, he was seated at a café in Lokhandwala Complex, Andheri (West), an area with a high concentration of aspiring models and TV actors, and the only thing he could be accused of being high on was a cup of hot chocolate.
His debut feature film, Ship of Theseus, completed earlier this year, is finally due for a theatrical release in March. For Gandhi, it’s just another layer of icing on an already substantial cake. After all, Ship of Theseus has been making waves in film festivals around the world, ever since it was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, where the festival’s artistic director Cameron Bailey called it one of the year’s hidden gems (see left).
The film is a continuation of ideas Gandhi explored in his short films Right Here, Right Now (2003) and Continuum (2006). Four years in the making, Ship of Theseus is a cinematic triptych that explores an ancient Greek philosophical conundrum known as Theseus’ Paradox, which asks the question: If an object has all its components removed and replaced does it fundamentally remain the same object?
A slick piece of cinema that achieves the rare feat of being intelligent without being esoteric, it has been praised by stalwarts such as Shyam Benegal and Shekhar Kapur; on watching it, Anurag Kashyap tweeted: “...probably the most brilliant film to have been made in India in decades.”
Today, Gandhi lives in an upscale seventh-floor apartment in Andheri. Books, mostly on the subjects of philosophy, religion and evolutionary biology, line shelves on the walls of his large, minimally furnished living room. He has an Apple workstation, a MacBook, a cat named Tinkerbell and a chauffeur-driven car at his disposal. “I’m an art-house filmmaker with the comforts of a mainstream filmmaker,” he says, with a laugh.
It wasn’t always this way. Gandhi, who spent his early childhood in Kalbadevi before his parents separated, remembers moving to a 120-sq-ft slum room in Borivli to stay with his mother and grandparents in 1987. He stayed there till the age of 14. “One of the ‘walls’ was a thin sheet of tin that used to crumple if anyone banged on it,” he says.
But all was not grim. His mother and grandmother were pop culture fanatics and Gandhi was raised on a diet of 1990s Bollywood movies and Gujarati plays. “We’d go to the theatre at least four times a week,” he says. His mother also encouraged him to write and participate in extracurricular activities such as debating and theatre. “By the age of 12, I was already writing, directing and acting in my own plays,” he says.
Despite being bludgeoned by crass mainstream fare regularly, Gandhi says his inquisitive nature and tendency to question everything helped him develop a taste for more sophisticated cinema and literature at a young age. “By 14, I was watching cinema by the likes of Shyam Benegal and Govind Nihalani,” he says. “By 17, I’d discovered Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf, and had crossed over to the other side.”
He gave up on Bollywood in 1998, after watching Karan Johar’s Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. Since then, he has watched — under duress — not more than one such film every two years. Swearing to purge his life of mediocrity, he dropped out of his BCom course at RA Podar college, Matunga, the same year.
“I was disgusted with whatever was being taught and the way it was being taught,” he says. “I realised I had to drop out of college in order to gain an education.” He then proceeded to study, on his own, subjects such as evolutionary biology, Gandhian economics and quantum mechanics, and also spent time with iconoclasts such as Vandana Shiva, an environmentalist, and Abhay Mehta, known for his activism against corporate irregularities.
However, mediocrity seeped back into his life in 2000, when he accepted an offer to write two TV shows produced by Ekta Kapoor — Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi and Kahaani Ghar Ghar Kii. Gandhi, who was 19 and penniless at the time, was offered Rs 1 lakh per month for this job, a substantial sum even by today’s standards.
“In retrospect, I think I was seduced by not only the money, but also the prospect of being able to influence such a large audience,” he says. “I couldn’t do it for longer than eleven months, especially when I realised I was a contributor to corporate greed via the show’s advertisers as well as being a party to regressive content.”
It’s been a long journey since then, which has included a number of acclaimed plays, two cult short films — Right Here, Right Now is a staple at college festivals and management seminars — and a two-year sabbatical, between 2004 and 2006, during which he stopped working and tended to his ailing grandparents.
“That time was important for me,” he says. “I was being offered all sorts of mainstream films for large amounts of money and was very tempted to give in. That period gave me time to introspect on and ask myself what was important.”
His answer from that time, which ultimately led to Ship of Theseus, was to continue his journey of asking questions related to life, death, causality and the theory of everything. Six years later, Gandhi has no regrets.
“I don’t want mediocrity or ugliness to seep into my consciousness,” he says, perhaps referring to his past. “Life is too short for that.”