In his first, audacious, short film, he used a single editing cut to link together two separate incidents. In his second short, he stitched together different stories into one tapestry. Anand Gandhi’s cinema-as-patchwork preoccupation continues in his stunning debut feature Ship of Theseus. The movie is an expansion of ideas contained in Right Here, Right Now and Continuum as well as a self-reflexive meta narrative about the plastic nature of cinema. Ship of Theseus has been doing the rounds of various film festivals.
Gandhi’s movie is inspired by the philosophical conundrum posed by the Greek philosopher Plutarch. The question of whether an object whose parts are replaced remains the same object is explored through three stories. A blind Egyptian photographer (Aida Elkashef) living in Mumbai ponders on the nature of beauty after she gets back her sight. The second and most accomplished story sees a Jain monk (Neeraj Kabi) forgoing treatment for a liver condition while also fighting a case against animal testing. Finally, a stockbroker (Sohum Shah) gets obsessed with delivering justice to a slum dweller whose kidney gets stolen during a surgical procedure. The stunning climax illuminates the connections between corporeal, ethical, aesthetic and spiritual matters that have been hinted at throughout the 2 hours, 22 minutes narrative.
Heavy-duty stuff, one would imagine, for a 32-year-old film-maker. Gandhi has actually been grappling with these concepts ever since he dropped out of a commerce course at the age of 15. The precocious director, who has written for television and the stage, attended classes in Jainism, Buddhism and Hinduism at the University of Mumbai and counts leftist activists and soul-searching philosophers as friends. He will continue to mine metaphysical matters in his upcoming projects, one of which revisits the mass suicide by members of the People’s Temple cult in Jonestown, Guyana, in 1978. Another “super-super ambitious” film uses as its framing device a browser with 30 open windows, each of which leads to a different reality. Edited excerpts from an interview:
How did you give cinematic form to esoteric ideas about the body and the soul?
In Right Here, Right Now, I wanted to know if patterns of causality can be measured and observed. In Continuum, we were exploring the origin of multiple causalities. After Continuum, I realized that I didn’t want to take this philosophy and build a monolith around it. My first draft in 2007 was extremely didactic. I had monologues that ran into three or four pages. That would have been a 7-hour film.
I stopped working for a year and a half after Continuum. My grandparents fell severely ill. I found myself in a depressing phase, living in hospitals, surrounded by death and disease. I had time to introspect on-the-ground realities of living with disease.
The story brings together four themes: the attachment to transcendence; the empathy towards failed attempts at unifying meaning; suicide as a philosophical problem; and the age-old pursuit of connectivity. I am constantly trying to find the unifying theory. What Richard Dawkins does as a biologist or Jared Diamond does as a historian, I would like to do as a film-maker.
I am certain about a few things. Of course, there is no God, religions were written by people. It’s not even a question any more.
How did you arrive at a structure? One version started with the monk, didn’t it?
We initially thought of a structure based on the eye, the liver and the kidney. Then, we followed the Satyam Shivam Sundaram approach: the monk being about the quest for truth, followed by Sohum’s quest for ethics, and the blind woman’s quest for aesthetics. We literally made three films, and everybody we showed the first version to advised us to make three films. The film can be clinical at times; it is not lenient in emotion. I felt that the way to give audiences an emotional experience was to link the stories together.
The film provides a fascinating peek into the sheltered world of Jain monks.
I was born into a Vaishnavite family but was adopted into a Jain family when I was 15. I had great academic access to the world—an ex-monk is a friend. A lot of monks told me that if you put a Jain monk in your film, they would get it banned.
The monk resembles MK Gandhi at times—that is presumably deliberate?
It was deliberate. The monk is a composite of all my heroes—Gandhi, (Jain philosopher) Shrimad Rajchandra, (activist) Abhay Mehta, (environmentalist) Satish Kumar and a part of me. Their ideas are incredibly flawed, but I have great empathy for all attempts to find a unifying theory, for all who have taken a shot at meaning even though they might fail.
The observational and fluid cinematography greatly helps to convey the idea of oneness.
Pankaj Kumar and I met because he had seen Right Here, Right Now. He showed me a short film he had made, called Solitary Sandpiper. Within 2 minutes I knew that I had found my soulmate and that I would shoot films with this guy for the rest of my life. He shot a bit of Continuum. Like that film, this one is also about fluidity, about the idea that everything is immediate, happening right here and around us and needs to be engaged with in an honest, real and transparent way.
‘Ship of Theseus’ isn’t a Mumbai film but it evokes characters and worlds that are typical of the city, especially the stockbroker and his left-liberal grandmother who admonishes him for making money rather than trying to do social good.
I wanted Ship of Theseus to be a Bombay film; I wanted people who were a part of my Bombay. The woman who plays the grandmother is the grandmother of my friend Devdutt Trivedi, whose father, Parag Trivedi (founder of the cultural organization Sabrang), was a big influence on me. The guy who plays the monk’s lawyer is Sunip Sen, one of the lawyers in a petition against the Enron power project.
When my business partner Mitesh Shah and I were younger and rebelling our way into what we wanted to do, we imagined a future in which all of us would be married, have kids, and expose them to the greatest art and literature and philosophy. Then they would come to us and say, “We want to become bankers.” The stockbroker’s story is about that nightmare.
Do you feel connected to other independent film-makers?
I am aware of what’s going on, but it is not something with which I identify. I was missing a cinema that was relevant to me, was about my process of introspection, about questions my friends and I have. Cinema around the world does that, but I missed that in India. Everything that excited me once is something I can’t sit through. A lot of American cinema, for instance—I have lost patience for that kind of stuff. I have aged, I guess. But there were a few films that were life-changing—Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse was life-changing to the point that I got the sound designer from that film to do the sound for Ship of Theseus. Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon was another film.
I have raised expectations for myself from art and cinema. I don’t want to waste my time on something that isn’t going to add to my enlightenment. If I am reading a book, it better be life-changing.
Ship of Theseus releases in theatres on 19 July 2013.