Among the glut of revenge potboilers, slapstick comedies and sweeping love stories that dominate our screens, an intelligent film that might hold its own at the box office against the big-moneyed kitsch is a prospect to savour. So it is with considerable anticipation that cinema goers await the release of Anand Gandhi’s Ship of Theseus in select cities on 19 July. The small-budget alternative film has been winning critical acclaim on the international film festival circuit since its premiere at the Toronto film festival in September last year. The critic Derek Malcolm, president of the British Federation of Films, picked it as the film that changed his life. Unsurprisingly, this is Gandhi’s favourite accolade, to have a critic of the stature of Malcolm pick Ship of Theseus alongside the films of such directors as François Truffaut, Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen. Shekhar Kapur tweeted “Finally a brilliant new filmmaker emerges”, Anurag Kashyap called it “the most brilliant film to have been made in India in decades” and Anand Patwardhan likened its exploration of causality and serendipity to Kieślowski. Most recently, Karan Johar said, “It makes you feel very inferior as a filmmaker, it’s that brilliant.”
The 32-year-old Gandhi is living the dream. He had always wanted to make films and everything in his life — everything he has done, seen and read — has gone into the making of his debut feature film. His grandmother told him fables as a boy, inculcating an early love for stories. As a teenager, he dropped out of college in Mumbai, losing faith in “archaic learning”. He went on to work with altindia.net, a website set up by the author Abhay Mehta, and also with Alok Ulfat’s theatre and education movement. He read deeply and widely, from 20th century philosophers to Jain and Buddhist thought. “I am not cleverer than any of these writers. But I have one advantage over them. I have read them,” he says, paraphrasing from Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist.
He was writing plays that caught the eye of playwright RM Joshi, who introduced him to Ekta Kapoor. This led to a stint in Gandhi’s career that baffles everyone who knows him now — writing dialogue for the Hindi soaps Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi and Kahaani Ghar Ghar Ki. Back then, he was happy for the opportunity, the mainline credit, the money and “instant gratification”. “I was 19, I was sleeping four hours a day and working the rest. It was a great high,” he laughs. It was during this time that he also wrote Sugandhi, a critically acclaimed play that first brought his talent to wider attention.
Sugandhi, and his first short film Right Here Right Now (2003), are, according to Gandhi, the foundations of Ship of Theseus. The earlier work’s interest in discourse, causality and the ripple effect of one person’s actions achieve full, spectacular maturity in the full-length film.
Gandhi wants to fill Ship of Theseus — a film spanning three stories about three different characters — with everything he knows, happily combining microbiology and philosophy to ask questions about the very existence and essence of the individual. Our bodies have 10 times more bacterial cells than they do human cells. In terms of numbers we’re walking Petri dishes. Are we then individuals or are we colonies, made up of a million different life forms, which blur the lines between where we end and where our environment begins? This was one of the questions running through Gandhi’s head as he wrote the script. In the film, an ailing monk and a young lawyer debate the nature of non-violence towards all life forms, asking whether we can understand all life and how totally we can occupy our own bodies without doing harm to the organisms that occupy us.
This question, of what constitutes a being and how it does so, is central to the film, which takes as its starting point the philosophical paradox in Plutarch’s Life of Theseus. If Theseus’s ship was rebuilt plank by plank, would it remain the same ship, and if the older wood was used to build another ship, which then is truly the ship of Theseus? The director Q, who has known Gandhi for the past two years, calls his work a convergence of aesthetics and radical ideas.
Of course, Ship of Theseus’s central idea, non-violence, which has become a familiar one to Indians, has lost its initial radical edge. It’s an idea Gandhi admits to being obsessed with for the longest time. Given his name, it led to many inevitable jokes among the crew, says Pankaj Kumar, Gandhi’s cinematographer and best friend.
However, in the second and possibly strongest segment, the monk, an exponent of non-violence, deals with extreme self doubt. In the third story, a stockbroker with a kidney transplant learns about the nature of violence and pain that can be inflicted on the poor and on those without agency. His quest for justice is met with resistance from an unexpected quarter. And the first story isn’t about a blind photographer using her other senses, but more unexpectedly how she might lose her art if she regains her sight. This is the strength of Gandhi’s film, he teases every implication out of each premise, subjects it to tests, refuses to accept it as received wisdom.
In all these stories, Gandhi has been aided by Kumar, who he first met when the latter contacted Gandhi after watching Right Here Right Now. “We used to stay up all night for years, talking about the ideas that are in this film,” tells Kumar. The two men work seamlessly together, Kumar’s cinematography so beautiful a manifestation of Gandhi’s thoughts that the film has been hailed as a visual masterpiece. More than the sweeping shots, it is the small observations that stand out: the way light and sound can assault one’s senses, the interiors of a Mumbai jhuggi, or the transition of a mind from calm to turmoil.
The result is what Anand Patwardhan calls a “breath of fresh air in an environment that is generally suffocating with either gratuitous violence that passes for realism or humourless comedy.” Kiran Rao, who came on board as a presenter, roping in UTV Motion Pictures, said that the film put her in a daze. She’s cautious, though, about its commercial appeal to an audience fed on a diet of butter-popcorn-slick Bollywood productions. “Intelligence shouldn’t be an exception, but it is,” says Gandhi ruefully, talking about the state of alternative cinema in the country, or as he prefers to call it, auteur cinema. Audiences respond too easily to love, sex, revenge and Salman Khan.
“Primal urges”, Gandhi calls them, likening it to our bodies’ response to sugar and fat. “It’s like a Big Mac. There is no skill in cooking it, it’s the same everywhere.”
In this admittedly gloomy scenario, Gandhi remains hopeful, targeting the number of people who have been denied any sort of discourse in cinema. “They may be a small percentage of the population, but in India that is still a huge number,” he says. Q, too, believes that auteur cinema in India is on the verge of becoming a proper scene, an Indian nouvelle vague, and that Gandhi is the one closest to giving it a language of its own. It’s a lot to load onto a single film, a single director, but Gandhi seems prepared and eager to take on the responsibility. If nothing else, Ship of Theseus is a film of ideas, it forces the audience to think, to draw connections, to work. If the discussions at preview screenings are anything to go by, he has succeeded in opening a can of worms. With any luck no one will be able to force the worms back in.