Anand Gandhi on his debut “Ship of Theseus”

By Nandita Dutta • Published on October 22, 2012

Ship of Theseus

[A]nand Gandhi’s highly anticipated film Ship Of Theseus premieres in India at the Mumbai Film Festival on October 24. The film recently won a Special Mention by the Sutherland Award Jury at 56th BFI London Film Festival and is screening at the ongoing Tokyo Film Festival. It had its World Premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival last month. Anand Gandhi talks about his debut feature here:

What is Ship of Theseus about?

Ship of Theseus is a philosophical paradox of identity and change. As the planks of Theseus’ ship needed repair, it was replaced part-by-part, up to a point where not a single part from the original ship remained in it, anymore. Is it, then, still the same ship? My film probes this question in a metaphorical sense. “How do we know where we end and our environment begins,” wonders one of the characters in the film. The three stories of the main characters in my film unfold within this philosophical question.

However, the individual stories explore their own ethical, moral and aesthetic dilemmas. An experimental photographer, celebrated for her intuitive work, successfully captures the essence of her experience in her photography. However, she also struggles with insecurities over authorship in the context of larger questions about subjectivity and intent in art.

An intellectual monk, who is an ideologue and practitioner of non-violence, and actively involved in animal rights activism, is forced to make a choice between death and medicine – medicine that is either derived from, or tested on animals. As death closes in, he re-questions all the ideas that he has always taken for granted.

A young stockbroker has a frictional relationship with his grandmother, whom he nurses in a hospital. When it is discovered that a neighboring patient has had his kidney stolen, he starts out on a trail that leads him to a kidney tourism racket. Altruism and concern lead him further to the recipient of the kidney, living in Sweden. Their stories form a whole that explores questions of identity, change, free will and responsibility.

What was the starting point for the film?

There have been a few ideas that have been a constant fascination, and with each passing year and passing piece of work, 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? What are we made of? 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 for our choices? What is the next stage of evolution going to be like? Can there be conclusive knowledge? Can there be a unifying theory? 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.

Tell us about the journey of making Ship of Theseus. How long have you been working on it?

I have worked on the film for about four years. The shoot went on and off over a year and a half. We must have shot for about eighty days in this period. It’s been a long journey that began post-Continuum, my last short film. Around the time I was spending a lot of time in a hospital, nursing my grandma. We have all come out safe and transformed on the other side.

Tell us how you went about funding the film.

My DoP Pankaj Kumar and I had decided to go ahead and shoot the film with whatever little resources we had of our own, which weren’t anything. We began the casting process, pretending to ourselves and to our cast members that we had the money to make the film. During the rehearsals, Sohum got a sense that we don’t have the money after all – neither to pay him, nor to make the film. He really believed in the script and felt a film like this had to be made. He pulled together all his resources and that’s how the finance came on board.

How would you describe the experience of making your first feature? What were the challenges you faced?

It’s the same challenges that any filmmaker in the world will have making the kind of film that is meaningful and relevant. It’s much easier to make junk – food, thought or culture. So it was tough, sure. But I was also really fortunate to have found a producer like Sohum Shah. His presence made the process much easier than it would have been otherwise.

Tell us about your choice of cast for the film.

The casting of each character has an interesting back story. Sohum Shah has been the discovery of the year. He 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. Tumbad by Rahi Barve will be the next one to come out. 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. It came really naturally to her, and after a point, we just could not imagine anybody pulling it off so well. Neeraj and I rehearsed for the film for months before deciding to work together. It was a long and educational journey to see him slowly transform into the part. We shot with him over five months, during which he lost about 38 pounds to reflect the character’s fast-unto-death. All the other actors in the film are friends and friends of friends who do not think of themselves only as actors – they are writers, artists, thinkers, directors, even lawyers and doctors.

What is the plan for the Indian theatrical release of the film?

We have a few offers from some distribution houses. The film will definitely see an Indian release – there’s a lot of enthusiasm in the Indian audiences for the film.

Your comment on current independent film making scene in India?

I think it’s getting progressively exciting. We might just be at the beginning of a most exciting phase in Indian cinema. I am very optimist. More and more meaningful films are being attempted and consumed. The number of cinephiles is growing. I hope we can soon have a theatre which is dedicated full time to showing arthouse and documentary cinema. One of these days, somebody is going to coin an appropriate name for this paradigm shift.

Who are the filmmakers you admire?

Roy Andersson, Michael Haneke, Lars von Trier, Bela Tarr, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Andrei Tarkovsky, Abbas Kiarostami, Emir Kusturica, Terrence Malick…

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