We spoke to filmmaker Anand Gandhi about his award-winning feature film Ship Of Theseus, which gets a theatrical release in India next month.
Theseus’s paradox is a philosophical paradox that raises the question of whether an object which has had all its components replaced remains fundamentally the same object. If you replace all the planks of a ship, one by one, is it still the same ship? This is the guiding concept that filmmaker Anand Gandhi explores in his 2012 film, Ship Of Theseus. Using interconnected narratives revolving around a visually impaired photographer, a monk who is forced to confront his ideologies, and a young stockbroker, Gandhi explores concepts of constantly evolving identity, beauty, and justice.
That’s the most basic way to put forth what Ship Of Theseus has to offer. I watched the film at a screening on Sunday, keeping in mind the original paradox, but it was only when I spoke to Gandhi yesterday that I realised the intricacy and the depth of detail in each of his narratives. Ship Of Theseus is not just a one-time watch. With each subsequent revisitation of the film, you discover nuances and dilemmas that went previously unnoticed, and that is exactly what Gandhi intended. ”I personally enjoy the kind of literature and cinema where the first viewing is only the beginning of the experience. You feel like going back to it to find out more,” he says. Gandhi’s impressive writing career spans everything from experimental theatre, soap opera scripts and short films. Dropping out of college in a bid to design his own education and learn everything he possibly could, Gandhi gravitated towards theatre, working with movements in Dehradun and Mumbai, writing National Award-winning experimental plays such as Sugandhi. His work in theatre caught the attention of executives from Balaji Telefilms, which led to a stint writing scripts for Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi and Kahaani Ghar Ghar Ki. “It was a great high in my life,” he says about that initial period. “I was studying philosophy at the university at the time, I took up a course in Gandhian philosophy.” It was at this time that he began to voraciously expose himself to all the cinema he could find, attending retrospectives, watching films and meeting people. This entire learning process led to the making of Gandhi’s first short film, Right Here Right Now, which won an award for Best Short Film at the Syracuse International Film Festival. “That film went to a lot of festivals and opened up a whole bunch of possibilities,” he explains. “Also, that short film put me on to three of the most important people in my life right now, including my DOP Pankaj Kumar, who worked with me on Ship Of Theseus.”
Gandhi uses narrative fiction to communicate philosphical dilemmas. In Ship Of Theseus, a monk is forced to rethink his established ideologies when he is thrown into an ethical dilemma. A stockbroker who thinks of nothing but business suddenly takes it upon himself to follow the trail of a stolen kidney, and learns about the ambiguous nature of morality in the process. A visually-impaired photographer is wracked with self-doubt after a clinical procedure. For Gandhi, the Ship of Theseus paradox served as a guiding line, a trigger which enabled him to explore more dilemmas of pinning down identity, of truth and of beauty.
Watch the official trailer for the film below.
“I needed to find stories that can open all kinds of questions,” he says about his choice of plotlines. “In the first story (the photographer), one goes into the measure of beauty, whether beauty can be subjective or objective. If it is subjective, what happens when the one perceiving the beauty is impaired?” Speaking of the second story in the film (the monk), he talks about the ambiguous line between a person and his environment. “It was an exploration of the nature of self and reality. Is there an entity behind the parts that make up a person? Is there a distinct essence, or is there something that creates an illusion of the soul?” The third tale sees a stockbroker track down a kidney selling racket. “We often find ourselves in positions where we have to exploit people for our benefit,” he says of the narrative. “This goes into an exploration of whether in doing so, we make self-harming decisions, and the economic systems and whether they have failed us. On some level, each of the stories have a ‘Satyam Shivam Sundaram’ construct,” he explains, talking of the trinity of basic ideologies – truth, good and beauty. While each narrative explores a particular aspect of the trinity, you’ll also find pertinent questions that relate to the whole philosophy within each.
I was struggling to keep up with Gandhi’s steady patter at this point, occasionally recognising concepts I’d last heard in my second year philosophy class (and never really thought I’d hear again). Watching the film, one thing is evident – no one who was connected with the making of this film could have been left unchanged by the questions it throws up. I was also curious as to Gandhi’s choice of cast.
The process of casting itself took six to eight months. “Each of the actors who auditioned were requested to allow the process to evolve into something over a period of time. That request itself filtered out a lot of people,” Gandhi explained. “Each person involved had a very interesting role to play.” Aida El Kashef, who plays the role of photographer Aliya Kamal, met Gandhi at a film festival and started out assisting him in the pre-production stages of Ship Of Theseus. “When we were auditioning for roles within the first story, she sat in for the role of Aliya and everything she did was so perfect for the character that the crew insisted she take the role. Neeraj Kabi (who plays the role of the monk) is a very exciting thespian,” says Gandhi. “I first saw him in an Atul Kumar production and I knew I wanted to work with him someday. He was gracious enough to agree to audition for a few months, and in his case the commitment was extremely severe. He completely transformed.” However, the real discovery in the audition process, according to Gandhi, was Sohum Shah, who plays the role of stockbroker Navin Parmani. “Soham for me was the discovery that in retrospect, made everything I did three years ago happen,” Gandhi muses, adding, “He came and auditioned and he turned out to be absolutely brilliant. We wanted the actors to be incredibly realistic, but we hadn’t expected to find that directly, we knew we’d have to work on it. Soham was just exactly the way he was in the film, unbelievably close to the character.” When Shah realised the film did not have all its finances in place, he came on board as a producer. His business background also helped him adapt to his character easily.
As I’d theorised, many of the people involved in the film did go through life-changing experiences. Through the course of playing his role as a monk, Kabi went from being a carnivore to a vegetarian. Gandhi went on to explain that Shah, who was transitioning into a career as an actor from being a businessman, went through a great paradigm shift. Through the making of the film, Gandhi himself found some answers to the questions he poses through his narratives. “Stories are great problem solving tools,” he tole me. “You have an intricate problem that you can’t solve, and sometimes even simply articulating your problem brings you closer to the answers. Sometimes the solution lies in articulating.”
Ship Of Theseus has won eight international awards at film festivals around the world, and has been celebrated at several more film festivals last year, all without getting a local theatrical release. Premiering at the Toronto Film Festival in 2012, the film has been screened at prominent localtions including the BFI London Film Festival, the Mumbai Academy of Moving Images and the Hong Kong International film festival. Now, a year after it was made, it gets a theatrical release in India. The film caught the attention of Kiran Rao at the Naya Cinema Film Festival, and Rao, in connection with UTV Motion Pictures, is releasing Ship Of Theseus in theatres in Mumbai, Kolkata, Bangalore, Delhi and Pune, premiering on July 19. The film also has a unique release campaign, wherein you can participate in a mechanism to get the film released in your city. All you have to do is go to this link and vote for your city.
Gandhi was amazed by the enthusiasm among audiences to watch a film that isn’t your traditional Bollywood potboiler. He categorised the current Indian audience, saying, “There is a set of people that has been engaging with world cinema, because of film festivals, retrospectives and the internet, and know that this kind of introspective film is what they’re starving for, and crave similar content from India. Even if we’re only talking about 2% of the total population, that’s about a crore people! Then, there is the potential audience that has not been groomed to this kind of cinema. They may not immediately fall in love with it when they watch it, but they will see that this is the kind of cinema that they want to engage with.”
Ship Of Theseus releases in theatres on July 19. If you’d like to get a release in your city, vote here.