“Indian television crosses limits of regressive vulgarity on a daily basis. Most of it is not only painfully unwatchable, but also downright dangerous.”
Anand Gandhi betrays a philosopher’s appearance – his salt and pepper hair, eyes that think and a mien that evokes depth. Perhaps true to his demeanor, is his movie Ship of Theseus that explores questions of identity, justice, beauty, meaning and death through the stories of an experimental photographer, an ailing monk and a young stockbroker.
Gandhi is a filmmaker, playwright and artist, interested in philosophy, evolutionary psychology and magic. His work in theatre, television and short cinema has won him several awards in the past decade. He is now engaged in producing contemporary world cinema under his banner Recyclewala Films. Ship of Theseus, his first feature, was showcased on the opening night of the Toronto International Film festival lately. Anand Gandhi talks about his movie and aspirations in an interview with Generation Next.
Q: How did the idea of Ship of Theseus come about?
There have been a few ideas that have been a constant fascination, and with each passing year, the questions have become more holistic. When I felt I was ready to make a feature length film, I wanted to take the opportunity to formulate a complete question of identity and self. Only once we ask the right questions, can we begin to find relevant answers. Who are we? Where do we end and where does our environment begin? How responsible are we of our choices? Can there be absolute laws? Can there be an objective sense of beauty? Can we device a system of complete fairness? I needed to find narratives and situations that could become vehicles for these questions. And that’s how it began.
Q: You grew up in Mumbai and quit college. You are “self-educated”. Why did you quit college? How did you then educate yourself on theatre?
I found myself wasting my time over an education system that was still informed by ideas barely relevant even five decades ago. College education lacked the rigour, critical thought and stimulation that I expected from education. I realised the only way I could educate myself was to drop out of college and pursue a disciplined study of all that was relevant to me. I took up small courses around the country, lived and worked with interesting people, read and traveled extensively, etc. I helped Alok Ulfat found the Mumbai chapter of his alternative theatre movement Avikal – that’s where major theatre training happened.
Q: How did you choose the starcast of the film?
Sohum Shah came by for an audition and surprised all of us with his extremely invisible method. We decided immediately to cast him for the four films we were planning at that time. SOT is the first one of those four. Aida Elkashef is a filmmaker, who had come down to Mumbai to help me in the casting process. She would sit in for the photographer’s part while we auditioned actors for the part eventually played by Faraz Khan. The character really became her, and after a point we just could not imagine anybody pulling it off so well. We shot with Neeraj for over five months, through which he lost about 38 pounds to reflect the character’s fast-unto-death. All the other actors in the film are friends who do not think of themselves only as actors – they are writers, artists, thinkers, directors, even lawyers and doctors.
Q: How far are the incidents/parts of the film inspired by your life, or let’s say, have you come across people you’ve created in the film?
It’s the inner journeys of the characters, rather than incidents that are more reflective of my personal journey. I have found myself, at various points in my life, in the shoes of each one of my characters. These are also stories and dilemmas that have resonated with my friends, while I have had the privilege to be on the outside and see them make their life choices.
Q: Your short films have always dealt with quite deep issues like cyclic causality or the continuum of life and death. Is philosophy a constant refrain in your work? Is it a reflection of your own dilemmas?
We are living in a time of heightened scientific discovery. Technology 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. As an artist and a filmmaker, I like to assimilate this constantly renewed scientific information and make sense of it. Narrative fiction, dramaturgy, the moving image and the cinematic montage collectively form a great medium of appropriating these ideas. I often wonder if Buddha was around today, would he not have been a filmmaker too?
Q: You’ve also written the sreenplay for two best-selling soaps for Indian TV – Kyunki… and Kahaani Ghar Ghar Ki. What’s your observation about Indian television?
Indian television crosses limits of regressive vulgarity on a daily basis. Most of it is not only painfully unwatchable, but also downright dangerous. It is financed by the advertising of cosmetic companies trying to sell the notion of centrespread beauty or one or other bourgeoisie aspiration to the unsuspecting and susceptible majority. I wrote the shows when I was 19, and wanted to see if I had it in me to be able to write manipulative fiction meant for mass consumption. It was rather easy and irresponsible. I really hope that TV in India changes for the better, and I would love to contribute to that change.
Q: Who are the filmmakers you are inspired by?
Michael Haneke, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Andrei Tarkovsky, Tarr Bela, Roy Andersson, Terrence Malick, Emir Kusturica, Lars von Trier, Jacques Tati, Abbas Kiarostami…
Q: Can we say that Bollywood is moving away from so-called commercial cinema to a more meaningful and edgy one?
I would hope it does, but I don’t think it is yet. Bollywood is just a genre of Indian cinema. So I don’t know how much it’s capable of evolving further. Indian cinema, on the other hand, is definitely moving towards a very exciting phase.
Q:How do you find the South Asian audience here responding to your film?
I think audiences overall, South Asian, Canadian, international, are responding really well to the film. I think South Asian audiences especially have been thirsting for cinema that can resonate with them at a deeper level. They find the film relevant and meaningful, I believe. I have had people hugging me on the streets in the last few days in Toronto, for making the film I have. It’s been very validating.
Q: What made you so inclined towards Gandhian philosophy and creative arts? Is it family?
I come from a secular middleclass trading community. I have been raised on a high dose of popular culture. Critical thinking and questioning was always encouraged, and there was a great freedom of expression, and enthusiasm for art, even though nobody was an artist in the family. I would imagine all of that contributed to me becoming who I am today.
Q: Something about your next project..
I am producing and have co-written Rahi Barve’s period mood horror film Tumbad again starring Sohum Shah. I am hoping to finish a screenplay I have been writing in the next month or so. I have a deadline from my financer to start shooting the film by January.