“No, I want this to be mainstream. I want the frivolity, the silliness, the regressiveness to be alternative”

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Face to face with Anand Gandhi, Director of Ship of Theseus
Sadiq Naqvi Delhi 

“Ship of Theseus has managed to break the norm,” says Anand Gandhi, 33-year-old director of the film. “It has managed to tell the people that it is possible to make good films and people will come to watch and discuss them. It’s like an author going to a moneybag and the moneybag asking him if it can be more profound, not demanding that it be toned down or made more populist.”

As he speaks, he is seemingly distracted by the loud opulence of the DLF Promenade mall in South Delhi. The music in full blast makes it noisy. “It’s ugly, too,” he murmurs. Gandhi is here to interact with the audience, which, according to him, is an “important part, if one has to take the discussion forward”.

“In India, no film director is attempting to directly engage with the audience,” Ruchi Bhimani, executive producer at Recyclewala Films, which produced Ship of Theseus, comments, explaining the motive of this outreach. “It’s a packed house here for the second straight week. The manager just informed me,” she joyously tells Gandhi.

Gandhi turns to the 30-odd people from the audience who have surrounded him for the post-screening interaction. “I know how terrible it is that one has to depend on the very system to reach out, if one has to spread the message. Like, here, one is forced to shell out a few hundred rupees to watch the film,” Gandhi tells a young man who has watched the film three times.

A third-generation Mumbaikar who grew up with cinema, Gandhi thinks it’s among the most potent media for bringing about change. He shares his disgruntlement with politics and politicians alike, and feels that everything is in tatters. “A sea-change is needed if the situation of the common people is to improve,” he insists.

Gandhi’s views are echoed by Khushboo Ranka, the co-scriptwriter of the film, and Vinay Shukla, the young actor who played Charvaka. They are convinced that corruption is at the “root of every problem facing the country”. “None of the two main parties, the BJP or the Congress, seems to have any vision. We need strong policy interventions,” says Shukla.

Cinema is an inherent part of the cultural-political ecology, which is why this group of young filmmakers has decided to remain fiercely independent. They express a strong desire to challenge and change India’s corrupt institutions. As a group they have been working on a documentary about the country’s politics for the last two years, and Bhimani is also the India line producer of Dirty White Gold, a documentary by journalist and ethical-fashion advocate Leah Borromeo, exploring if opaque fashion supply-chains are at the root of cotton farmer suicides in India. They have more feature films in the pipeline.

Anand Gandhi says he will continue to experiment. “I know some of (my films) will bomb, but I will still not give up,” he says. Excerpts from a conversation with Hardnews

How did you come up with the idea of making a film so rooted in philosophy?

It’s been a long journey of trying to find something. Trying to find a way to construct narratives which can become vehicles for transferring inferences, epiphanies and profound experiences. So, one of the metaphors that I started looking at early was that of anti-gravity, of something hanging mid-air in a simulated anti-gravity environment. This is achieved by two forces. One is the natural force of gravity which is pulling the object towards it and one is the force created by fast rotation of the space which is pulling it away. That metaphor became a window for me to look at existence. To look at the universe as something that exists through co-existence of polarizing forces of chaos and order, of predictability and uncertainty, of causality and non-causality, of free will and causality. So each time you come upon a paradox, it’s an invitation to further examine the problem. Paradoxes are anomalies and hindrances in the logical landscape that invite us. And problem-solving again has been evolutionarily incentivized. 

Is this why the film is full of paradoxes?

Yes. Dichotomy is a great invitation to arrive at deep epiphanies, deep realizations. Because dichotomies engage you instantly and then engagement is incentivized. You feel the joy. You want to resolve it and again, there is a fitness consequent at the end of a dichotomy. And also when you further dig into the problem, when you further dig into the paradox, you arrive at points of unification. So you take a thesis and an anti-thesis and then you further dig into it, you arrive at a synthesis. There were several experiences in my life, moments of epiphany, moments which were extremely enlightening, moments that, for lack of a better word, felt transcendental. There were moments that were deeply troubling to the point of complete collapse of meaning and purpose also. And the greatest challenge was how to transfer these experiences to another person. Cinema is perhaps the best and the greatest tool to transfer experiences. By virtue of having been raised in Mumbai for the first 17 years of my life, the major share of education that I received came through cinema. So I continued using that experience to share my experiences. It will only be fair if I continue using that medium to share my experiences. Now, all of that together became a problem that I wanted to solve as a construct for the last decade or so. So this film is just a tiny experiment to see if causality can be explained through very simple parables. This experiment has been continuing for the last 10-12 years. I was trying to see if we can create a visual dichotomy, a narrative dichotomy, a structural dichotomy that can transfer the experience of unification. 

Did it occur to you at any point that this kind of narrative might be difficult for the audience to comprehend? It’s too abstract at points…

Yes. That’s always a challenge. And especially when I am making the surface layers so transparent, so simple and so parable-like, there is also the other danger of people limiting it. People impose the limitation of their interpretation on the film. I have seen people do that. Some people coming out and saying, ‘Oh, this film is only talking about this.’ Usually, what happens is that they are not talking about the film but their interpretation of it and criticizing the interpretation itself. I am aware of that danger. But this roadblock is still a great invitation for further critical thinking. In post-modernism, narrative fiction has been a bit undervalued and underrated. There is a political need for doing that. I am not getting into that, I am not rejecting it.

There continues to be a valid political need to sustain a cinematic movement that is anti-narrative also. There is an aesthetic reason for that, there is evolutionary reason for that, I really support that but I am not interested in that as a filmmaker and as an author. I am interested in creating clearly straightforward network parables, stories that become straightforward invitations to delve deep into
the discourse. 

The film moves from a philosophical tangent to a more political one in the end…

There are lots of structures that you might want to look at when you are viewing the film. There is an attempt to oscillate constantly between order and chaos, design and spontaneity. While the script is extremely designed, the screenplay is designed, but it’s played out in a way so it seems completely spontaneous. There is constant oscillation between night and day, between prescriptive and non-prescriptive, between a very conclusive and logical shot that describes the story, the narrative, the very exact moment that it’s showcasing. So, it’s completely transparent followed by something that is translucent, that is non-prescriptive, metaphorical, so that you can have a relationship with the previous shot and then have a complete relationship with your interpretation of the scene.

So, one is this micro structure throughout the scenes, throughout the narratives, and then, there is a meta structure that the film opens up in a very sparse environment, condensed small space, and it keeps opening up. It opens up in complete order, complete design and moves to more chaos and spontaneity.

Beyond that there is a structure of philosophical trinity, the Indian philosophical trinity as put by the West in terms of Satyam Shivam Sundaram or epistemology, ethics and aesthetics. Let’s first enquire into the experience of beauty, from the very subjective of this experience of relationships, the emotional, the intuitive, to logical, which is the enquiry into truth, into the nature of things, how they manifest, the nature of identity, an identity which is in a constant state of flux, what is the nature of responsibility, what is the function of justice, and then go towards a very applied ethics. How do you take moral decisions in the absence of complete objective awareness, when you know that a completely Googlable enlightenment is a state extremely far away, probably not achievable at all. It has historically failed us several times and might continue to fail us till eternity. In that view, what kind of moral decisions do we take when we are informed by a constant state of flux? Hence, it moves from the intuitive to the logical to social and political.  

You chose to cast unknown faces. Why?

I am trying to make the illusion as perfect as I possibly can. The camera itself is just an absent figure which happens to be there. The environment is unfolding and the actors are living in it. The illusion is perfect. At the cinematic level it’s a great treasure of maintaining that illusion because the focus is to be somewhere else. It’s not a discourse on the nature of cinema; it’s not a discourse on what kind of relationship cinema as a medium has with the audience. It’s a very meticulously crafted illusion of reinstating that it is really happening to the point that it almost feels like a documentary in parts. 

How difficult is it for such a film to reach the audience?

Finding finance was the biggest challenge. I was so fortunate to have Soham as my actor, who believed so much in the film that he put in his own money. He stood by me for the last four years and said that this is a film that we have to make. The second big thing was Kiran (Rao) seeing the film. She loved it and asked what she could do for us. I said, why don’t you present it since you have such a great infrastructure. She loved the idea and turned into the presenter of the film. She decided to take the film to audiences in India. 

Even independent filmmakers have to depend on moneybags…

Certainly. Right now, the infrastructure is run on its own by certain institutions. First, we didn’t have enough films to build any infrastructure. Now that we have this film, we can talk about building infrastructure also. We can talk about scholarly film criticism which hasn’t existed in the longest possible time. Now we have taken this leap — although I am no one to claim that I have done something which hasn’t been done before, but I am objective enough to say that there is a certain leap that has happened. If we agree that a certain pop-cultural kind of leap has happened because of the film, there is a possibility of opening up the discourse. So, yes, there is dependence. That dependence cannot be resolved for another two-three years, but we can certainly start working on it. 

How do you break this monopoly?

We have to break it. The first proof that was required, this film has been able to provide. The fact that India has audiences not just ready for, but craving such cinema. I am certain that this film will go on for a while. And that will give us the impetus to make more films. Then we can start opening up different avenues, cultural spaces across the country, the environment, the infrastructure which supports such endeavours. We are putting all our resources to make it happen. We are committed to changing the cultural environment.

You will continue to make alternative films…

No, I want this to be mainstream. I want the frivolity, the silliness, the regressiveness to be alternative.    

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: AUGUST 2013