‘So what becomes of you my love, when they’ve finally stripped you of the handbags and the gladrags that your poor old grandad had to sweat so you could buy?’ asks writer-filmmaker Anand Gandhi on his blog. The question, ‘What becomes of you’, invoked in a tongue-in-cheek manner in the above statement, assumes centre-stage in his debut feature film Ship of Theseus. The title plays on Greek philosopher Plutarch’s paradox of a ship losing its identity and original form if all its devices are replaced over a period of time. Gandhi places this paradox right at the heart of the human experience, with the metaphor resonating through the kidney, corneal and liver transplants that his three lead characters must undergo to save their lives.
Would their lives be the same as before if their vital body organs were substituted? Set in Mumbai—“but not the Mumbai of gangsters, beggars or drug addicts”—Ship of Theseus explores not only the questions of change, identity and free will, but also of the nature of existence and death, starkly disturbing subjects that the 32-year-old playwright-turned-filmmaker has long brooded over. The idea hit him when he was nursing his ailing grandmother and was confronted with thoughts of death. It motivated him to probe more.
“Only when we ask the right questions can we begin to find relevant answers,” he says, adding, “Who are we? Where do we end and where does our environment begin? Are we still the same person we were a decade ago? How responsible are we of our choices? What is the next stage of evolution going to be like? Can there be conclusive knowledge? I needed to find narratives and situations that could become vehicles for these questions. That’s really how the film began,” he says.
Greeted with much acclaim last month at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it was showcased in the category of cinema from Mumbai, Ship of Theseus has been held out by critics as a successful example of a profoundly complex and cerebral indie film. Made with sparse resources and a small star cast, the film is being celebrated for its engaging plot, strong performances and remarkable visuals.
For one, Shekhar Kapur, bowled over by this promising filmmaker, hinted at retirement after watching the film. ‘I can go to the mountains now,’ he tweeted. While that may sound like an overstatement, responses to the film have ranged from people “coming up and hugging” its creator on the streets of Toronto after the screening to “moving responses” on social media.
Like most indie efforts, beneath the applause lies a story of struggle, primarily one of finding finance at a time when Gandhi himself was in dire straits. “It is the same challenge that any filmmaker in any part of the world has to [face] to make a film that is meaningful and relevant to our existence. It’s much easier to make junk—food, thought or culture,” Gandhi says.
The picture was gloomy until he met Sohum Shah, an enterprising young actor who had dropped in for an audition. Before long, a friendship was struck. Shah ended up not only walking off with the part of a stockbroker (a character which, in many ways, appears to be a stand-in for the director) but also took Gandhi by surprise with an offer to come on board as a producer. “That was the end of all our [financial] problems,” says Gandhi.
He admits to being initially apprehensive of letting his actor play producer as well, lest it harmed his vision of the film. Moreover, there was always a risk of creative interference. “But Sohum really believed in the script,” he says. “He reassured me that he intended to produce it only because he wanted to ensure the creative integrity of the film remained unharmed, which wouldn’t have been possible if we had let a studio produce it.”
Of all his actors, he singles out Neeraj Kabi, who plays a monk, for special praise. “We shot with Neeraj over five months, through which he lost about [17 kg] to reflect the character’s fast-unto-death situation,” Gandhi says.
Like Kabi, all the actors in the film are “friends of friends of friends”. Aida Elkashef, for instance, is Egyptian filmmaker Radwan El-Kashef’s daughter and a writer-director in her own right who had come to Mumbai to help him in the casting process. It was mere happenstance that she was recruited for the role of a photographer. “She would sit in for the photographer’s part while we auditioned other actors. The character really became her.”
Though finance and casting fell into place in quick succession, the real challenge now lies ahead, in the way Ship of Theseus is marketed and distributed. Ever the optimist, Gandhi believes this is as good a time for avant-garde films to do well commercially as any. “We need to start realising that there are more than a billion people living in this country. There are millions more like us here. We need smart new distributors who understand these newly evolved demographics and find a way to tap it.” He feels that the audience is actually “thirsting, like me and my friends, for cinema that can resonate with them at a deeper level”.
Born and brought up in Mumbai, Gandhi is an autodidact who dropped out of the formal education system and took to working early. “I educated myself in the allied arts, crafts and ideas that fascinated me—philosophy, graphic design, writing, direction and acting. I learnt from travelling and working with exciting people.” You would expect the maker of such a deeply contemplative film to have a philosophical view of his own, but apparently he has none. “You want a bumper sticker?” he asks, cockily. “I wish I had one. I am searching for meaning. I am semi-optimistic about a day in my lifetime when Googlepedia will have a precise response to the question, ‘What is life?’”
Given his leanings, it is hard to imagine that he is the same person who wrote dialogue for Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi for a vapid target audience, a far cry from the thinking individuals who may constitute Ship of Theseus’ core viewership.
But Gandhi doesn’t look embarrassed by the K-series on his résumé. “I was 19 when I wrote for Kyunki... Writing for it was a lot of fun, really.” The experience was interesting, he claims, “especially to see first-hand the mass manipulation of emotions and ideas, and how the manufacturing of consent was not all that difficult”.
Sappy soaps are today a distant memory. Bollywood is not in his scheme of things either. “It has not excited me for years now. I am likely to make a film that is entertaining, emotionally engaging and more accessible than my other work, but I am unlikely to make a ‘Bollywood’ film.” He says his job is that of a serious filmmaker, one who must make sense of modern existence and man’s place in the environment. “We are living in a time of heightened scientific discovery. Technology, whether it is scientific, cultural, political, social or economic, is advancing at an accelerating rate. So much so that most of us don’t know how to make sense of all the data that the greatest of scientific inquiries are producing. I find my role as a filmmaker relevant in the face of this challenge,” he declares.
Just before wrapping up, he drops his serious posture and asks in a lighter vein, “I often wonder if Buddha was around today, would he not have been a filmmaker too?”