Pic by Swati Bhansali-Shah

Pic by Swati Bhansali-Shah

This must be serendipity.

How else do you describe bumping into director Anand Gandhi just a few weeks before his debut feature film ‘The Ship of Theseus’ releases across the country?  I’d seen the film at MAMI in October, so it had ample time to seep into my consciousness and settle somewhere deep within my senses, coming back to me as waves of inspiration, beauty and discovery. I’d met him at a time when I was brimming with questions to ask the maker of this impressive film, and luckily he had ample time to answer. The film was being screened to an extremely critical audience – the students of FTII (incidentally, his DOP Pankaj Kumar’s alma mater) and the Institute’s Film Appreciation course- but Gandhi was calm. “I can’t wait to hear what they have to ask about the film,” he says eagerly, when I informed him of how blatantly critical the student’s have been of the films previously screened at the course. Then again, he is confident the film will find its way into the audience’s hearts and minds, as it has the world over. And so, under the fabled Wisdom Tree of this historical campus, our conversation begins.

Anand Gandhi and Pankaj Kumar at work

Anand Gandhi and Pankaj Kumar at work

Tell us how you started off with ‘Ship of Theseus’? You had credited a personal experience as an inspiration behind the film…

Partly, yes. Lots of ideas that have fascinated me through my life came together for this film.

I found myself at a point where I learnt to coalesce these abstract ideas, concepts and epiphanies into narrative metaphors. That, for me was a starting point. The challenge was to put these ideas into a narrative form. There are layers to an experience. A narrative layer, which you engage with and a discourse level through which you can penetrate into parts of the narrative. Pankaj (Kumar, the DoP) and I worked together very closely right from the idea stage. He started discussing the image and approach with me.

There’s also a personal experience involved. I’d just finished my second short film, Continuum (2006), and was nursing my grandparents so I had time to really focus, think and meditate on the ideas that had always fascinated me. Being surrounded by death and disease, it became possible for me to engage with the ideas in a very focused way. That’s when I felt that this (Ship of Theseus) is the story I want to make. Pankaj got very excited and felt that there was a lot of potential as to what we could do with it in the cinematic form. My friends began getting excited about it, and that’s how it all began.

What was the process of writing the film?

I started writing this film in early 2009 and shot it in early 2010. (It premiered in September 2012) It was long and excruciating at some places, and very fulfilling and rewarding at others, like most processes that lead to creating something that is outside of you. That which is a very strong reflection of who you are, and what you’ve found in all these years, all of that distilled into something outside of you, which has it’s own life and own contribution in the collective mean. Just that process of creation is an incredibly rewarding process.

Otherwise, there were a lot of questions and lot of problems that needed to be solved. Structural problems like whether three stories can be put together in a way that they are related to each other, whether these ideas can be coalesced in narrative without it becoming too didactic. There were philosophical problems that needed to be resolved like what do I think about the individual and it’s relation with the whole.

That’s something that came across very strong in the movie, like through Maitreya’s (the monk) story…

That came from a true inner space. It came from having truly engaged in the conflict myself, having felt it myself for a really long time and feeling that it needs to be addressed. The power of the narrative metaphor is huge to engage with it logically, but I had to give an experience that is intuitive.

Speaking of experiences, how much of it is inspired from personal life?

Every moment in the film has remnants of my personal experience. Every single character is an extension of my own dilemma, struggles, anxieties and questions, so I sense this continuum with each and every character of mine and their experiences. At the same time, it is imagined; a construct. It is distilled from real life, not an exact replica. I’m extremely attracted to creating such constructs, places where the parts come together, but the sum is greater than these parts. It is in that difference between the arithmetic sum of the parts and the experienced total that ‘wonder’ lies, that real experience, mystery lies. I’m very fascinated with such constructs, where things are seemingly transparent but something happens that does not make sense. That’s where the surprise happens. It’s the wonder that cinema can create.

Audiences have been raving about the cinematography, especially Mumbaikars who feel that the city has been captured in a whole new light. How did you achieve that?

For one, I know the city really well. I’ve been raised in the city. I’ve always wanted to shoot in places that I felt had experiences to share and have not been engaged by Indian filmmakers. I feel they provide a background, and not synonymous to the action that is going on, but often in juxtaposition or contradiction of the action and the context, which gives the experience of being in an urban environment its typical quality.

Also, as far as I’m concerned, my DoP Pankaj Kumar is the greatest artist in contemporary India. I absolutely admire him, love him. He’s one of my dearest friends. He has a very unique way of looking at things. He’s from the Institute (F.T.I.I.) I’m a high-school dropout. (laughs) We met here when one of my short films was being screened and he felt these are the kind of things he wants to engage in, and then I saw his short and felt that we were made for each other. He has a very special relationship with people and the environment. A very well observed relationship that reflects in his work.

How did you choose the locations?

Sometimes we knew the locations beforehand and a lot of times we had to convince each other. There are a lot of places in the film we would not have considered shooting in, some places I wasn’t convinced about. Once the rest of the team had also tuned in to the kind of aesthetics we were aiming for, everyone was coming up with locations and ideas. All were relevant, as the paradigm had been established. It was a flexible process. We shot over a period of a year. We took our own time deciding where we want to shoot, how we want to shoot, doing things, redoing things. I was fortunate to be working with people who absolutely loved the screenplay, loved the ideas, loved what I was doing, loved the process.

Secondly, I was fortunate that these were incredibly talented people and each had their own profound journeys. Sohum Shah, who plays the stockbroker and is also producer, has had a long journey himself. Neeraj Kabi, the monk, is an amazing actor and an amazing person.

How did you cast Neeraj Kabi for the role of the monk?

Actor Neeraj Kabi takes a break

Actor Neeraj Kabi takes a break

The auditioning process for that part went on for many, many months. It wasn’t a typical audition where you give an actor who has walked in, said some lines and gauge on that basis. It wasn’t possible to do that. So it had to be a very engaging audition. We had to request all the actors who were interested in playing that part that they’d have to invest a lot in a long process and in the end they might not even get the part. Only those who were willing to do that were auditioning. I was open to anyone. Academics, intellectuals, non-actors, anyone.

I’d remembered Neeraj from a production of Hamlet I’d seen 12 years back. It was a wonderful performance where Hamlet (Neeraj) wears tall stilts, a mask and walks on stage, and talks in an extremely seductive voice. When auditioning I knew we had to contact him and he understood where this person is coming from, how difficult it is to perform. It is one thing to watch a film and understand the character, another to understand it and then perform. There were long discussions on craftsmanship, on approach to a character, on acting, on small improvisations, debates and rituals I’d engage the actors in. For example, one process was walking. I’d give them their lines and make them go for long walks with me around the neighbourhood and the city, and then see their body language and suggest changes and variations accordingly. I was seeing how malleable they were to get into character. Right from auditioning Neeraj, to him preparing for the role, the whole process took around a year. He read books from Bodhmala to Shrimad Rajchandra, from Buddhist ideas to Peter Singer. We would have long conversations and debates, throw the script aside and discuss some more. He went from being a carnivore to a vegetarian. He was so convinced about the discourse he was participating in, he transformed and internalized it. We practiced a lot of bare-feet walking. He changed his diet where he ate only greens and salads for almost 4 and half months.

All this prep translates very powerfully on-screen…

Yes, I agree. We hear about how the process of making a film has completely transformed a maker and that stands true for me. I feel that something important and nice has happened with this film.

So have you inspired the crew to sign up for organ donation?

Yes, I’ve signed up for it myself! That’s something we’ve been constantly discussing to do in a way that is more structured so we can inspire others to do it as well. We want it to be celebratory and have a discourse around it so that we can involve the larger community across the country…

‘Ship of Theseus’. The title hints at the paradox without revealing much. What would you say the film is about?


Gandhi directs Aida El-Khasef who plays the visually-impaired photographer Aaliya Kamal

The initial reaction amongst my close friends to whom I’d narrated the story was that they loved it but they felt there were too many things going on. Everyone loved the end, but still… so I kind of knew that everyone watching the film would have the same experience. Then they’d ask me, what is that one thing the film is about? It’s very simple, I’d reply. It’s about the relationship between the Self and the Environment, the Universe. Whether it is possible to even define the Self and the Environment and find the line that divides it. That’s one of the central themes. Everything else is a manifestation of that. Then the issue of non-violence. Who is being violent to whom? Who is the individual, who is the environment? When talking about art and beauty, what is one’s experience of beauty, where is it coming from…Is there an objective measurement of beauty and one’s self and the environment? So I felt that all these paradigms boil down to the one question of the Self and the Environment.

I was always been fascinated with the analogy of the Ship. I felt it’s a great thought experiment. It makes you think at so many levels. It also tells a lot about different cultures that have tried to answer it. Broadly put, the East and the West, the Material and the Necessity. I remember narrating the story to my mother and I told her about the paradox and she answered, “Of course it’s the same ship! Where’s the paradox in it?” I told her, “The paradox is right here. All the parts have been changed!” She replied, “Yes, but the function remains the same.” So what if it is rebuilt? It still has the same structure, the same essence, and the same function. So the Essential becomes important. If the Material becomes important then it’s not the same. All these amazing Pandora’s boxes opened up when I began asking the question.

Tell us a little about your journey as a filmmaker?

I wanted to become a magician or a scientist when I was 5. I was attracted to the idea of a person who wonders about things, does these experiments, tells you how things are done, how they happen, where Life and the universe comes from…Then I wanted to be a writer. I loved telling stories and sharing experiences and epiphanies. As I grew older I wanted to be an artist, and a philosopher. A filmmaker is all this. It lets you be everything at the same time, and lets you mirror the Universe.

So I studied graphic designing, some animation and took up courses in different things that fascinated me, like Microbiology, Evolution and Gandhian economics. I did the Film Appreciation course at F.T.I.I, did the Philosophy course from the Mumbai University and now after this film, I’ve come a full circle as I go back to receive an honour they’re bestowing upon me. (smiles) I studied the arts, sculpture, painting… I read, traveled, met amazing people, watched millions of films, thousands of plays, and wrote for theatre and T.V. All this eventually groomed me to make my first short film ten years ago called ‘Right Here, Right Now’. (A 29-minute long film with 12 locations, 19 characters, 8 languages, 2 shots and 1 Cut.) The film took me places and opened lots of doors. Thus, I learnt a lot of things that lead you to making your first feature.

Ship of Theseus releasing in theatres gives the Indie scene a huge boost. How did it happen?

Anand Gandhi and Kiran Rao

Anand Gandhi and Kiran Rao

A couple of things came together to make this happen, the most prominent of all the forces being Kiran Rao. She saw the film last November at the Enlighten Film Festival. It was in the peak of making the rounds at fests (Toronto, Mumbai, London and Tokyo) and Kiran absolutely loved it. She called it the most amazing film she’d seen in her life. We became very good friends in a short time and started talking about how we could make more films like these. She then asked me if there was anything she could do to get the film out there, and I said, “By all means, please!” With Kiran onboard a lot of things fell in place. Amir (Khan) loved the film, so did Ronnie (Screwvala) and Siddharth Roy Kapur. Hence they were of the opinion and decided that there must be an audience out there that will love this film as well, and they wanted to audience to sample and respond to it. This is the Ship of Theseus’s journey.

As for Indie cinema, there are a lot of things that need to be considered. For one, there must be a platform for every voice to be heard and the assumption must not be reverse-engineered from economic expectations. However, I’m a little divided over what I think of the Indian Indie cinema scene. Are these Indie filmmakers in India also putting in their best, like what they want to experience in theatres? If yes, then these films will slowly start being distributed. Things are slowly happening, like PVR Rare. The audience is warming up to such releases. I’m very hopeful. I also feel a lot of Indie cinema is an alibi for making low-budget films using the mainstream media. A lot of these films made are using the narratives, tropes and language of mainstream cinema, but the ones that are relevant will continue to find audiences.

Besides I feel that not all Indie cinema made in this paradigm need to insist on a theatrical release. If you’ve shot on a mobile phone or without money, then you should be open to releasing it on different platforms, like on the Internet. However, everyone should have an option of releasing it theatrically. The intention matters, though. Have you designed your film for that purpose? I see a lot of films made under ‘Indie’ tag are not designed with that theatrical experience in mind.

39What have you shot your film on?

DSLR. The Canon 1D-Mark II.

 What advice would you like to give aspiring filmmakers?

Spend time listening, spend time observing, and engaging in a very serious, deep, profound and  disciplined way before you jump into talking and making. There’s a beautiful thing Banksy had said through one of his graffitis, “All artists are willing to suffer for their work, but very few are willing to learn to draw.”