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Interview English (India) Hindi

Anand Gandhi on Ship Of Theseus: It’s been a profoundly reassuring journey in life

The writer-director, who turns 38 today, speaks about his first film, which celebrated five years of release in July, and its incredible journey.

Sonal Pandya

A small, independent film, Ship Of Theseus (2013) has had an amazing path since its release on 19 July 2013. Written and directed by Anand Gandhi, it told the tales of three different individuals — Egyptian photographer Aaliya, Jain monk Maitreya, and stockbroker Navin — in a manner Indian cinema had not seen before. Even now, audiences are still discovering Gandhi’s stunning film and digesting the many questions and ideas it brings up.

The film and the response it garnered afterwards across the globe paved the way for other independent features to put forth their stories.

In a telephone conversation with Cinestaan.com, Anand Gandhi, who turns 38 today (he was born on 26 September 1980), speaks about the journey of Ship Of Theseus, from how it began as an idea to its eventual theatrical release in India, co-founding Memesys Culture Lab, and backing the documentary An Insignificant Man (2017). Excerpts:

How long did you work on the script of Ship Of Theseus before it went into production?

I develop stories simultaneously. Over a period of time, I narrate those stories to my friends and keep sharing them, especially with Khushboo [Ranka] who has been my co-writer for many years now.

[In] 2007, Khushboo and I made a short film called Continuum. We were in Germany showing it to friends and at festivals. We were at the Hanover International Film Festival, which had invited filmmakers from 45 countries to show their films. That’s where we met Aida [El-Kashef] who was presenting her short film. She was representing her film as a director, but I thought she could be an interesting actor to cast.

That’s when Khushboo and I started discussing the first few ideas around Ship Of Theseus and started sharing them with our friends there at the festival in 2007. It took three years after that for the stories to evolve, but while I was writing those stories, I was also developing Helicopter Eela.

This was your first feature film. What were the difficulties of getting the film produced and bringing to the big screen?

It’s always very difficult for first-time filmmakers in any part of the world. There were indeed many challenges. There were lot of things to circumvent, to transcend, as we went ahead making the film.

To begin with, there was no ecosystem that we could fall back on to make a film of that nature. Most people were uncomfortable with the idea that the film was partly in English, partly in Hindi. That already meant there is no market for it.

Most people were shocked that there was going to be spoken Arabic in the film. That just didn’t make any sense for an India release. The fact that it had the kind of conversations it had, the fact that it had the kind of stories and characters it had, made it extremely alienating for most Indian producers.

We realized that we would have to build our own, right from scratch. Which is what started happening.

We met Sohum Shah around this time. Sohum had made a film called Baabarr (2009). He wanted to act and he also wanted to invest in films. So I proposed to him that he could play a part in Ship Of Theseus and he could also invest in it. And that’s how the film began.

That investment could have been used either to make a trailer or to make a scene. It was a small amount of money, but it was all we had. So we went ahead and made the blind photographer’s story, the first story. Once that film was made and the edit had been completed, everyone started feeling a great sense of confidence around the film and that’s how the rest of the investments started coming through.

Most of the cast of the film were not known before the film. It was also Neeraj Kabi’s second film. How did that fall into place?

Ten years before Ship Of Theseus started, I had seen a play by Atul Kumar. Atul had done a rendition of Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead, the Tom Stoppard play, and Neeraj had rendered this stunningly well-performed Hamlet. He came on stilts with a mask and it was literally one of the finest theatre performances I had seen out of India in a long time. And that had stayed with me, that had stuck with me all these years.

And then Chaitanya Tamhane and I were talking at the time about who could potentially play this complex character. We needed the actor to be sufficiently evolved, the actor’s personal journey to reflect the character’s journey somehow. We were really looking for a monastic actor. Out of all the performers I had considered, Neeraj stuck out.

Chaitanya insisted very strongly that I should go meet Neeraj. And at that time, we were casting and auditioning actors all hours of every day. He came and met us one day and we realized he had gone deep into philosophical inquiry. He asked truly informed questions about the character and seemed very committed to the physical transformation that the character required. So Neeraj was clearly a discovery for us. Retrospectively, who else could have played that part?

Neeraj Kabi

The performance is amazing. Even now when you talk about the film that’s what stands out. After filming, it took many months in post-production to shape the film. I think it took about a few months to edit the film?

Yes, it took pretty much an entire year to finish the post-production.

Was that difficult as well?

Well, it was difficult to make it any shorter. It was also a function of it being a film I took a long time in detaching myself from. It was difficult to let go of a lot of scenes and a lot of shots. But I’m happy that I let go of those scenes.

How did Kiran Rao come on board to present the film then?

Cameron Bailey [artistic director] of the Toronto International Film Festival had seen the film and he was a huge admirer. He had keenly followed the film's journey from the time I had cut the first trailer, which was a year before the post-production finished. He kept in touch and really wanted the film for Toronto. The film did finally premiere at Toronto.

When he came to meet me in Bombay, we spoke about the Indian ecosystem and particularly my disappointment in our cinema culture. And Cameron said, I would like to put you in touch with someone. And my immediate reaction was I can’t foresee, I can’t imagine someone from the Indian ecosystem finding resonance with the film, seeing value in the film. And he said, no, but I’m talking about Aamir and Kiran. And suddenly, it made sense.

Cameron got us in touch, but Kiran couldn’t make time and the conversation kind of dissipated, but months later, after the TIFF premiere and MAMI screenings, there was a special screening arranged by Enlighten Film Society which Kiran came to watch and that’s where she felt that this was a film that resonated with her very deeply. She spent a lot of time with me after the film and later arranged a special screening for Aamir, Siddharth Roy Kapur and Zarine [Screwvala]. That’s how they decided to come on board.

Anand Gandhi (Photo: Shutterbugs Images)

After that, there were many screenings, around the country and around the world. And it became very successful and critically acclaimed. What kind of responses were you getting from audiences at that time?

It was absolutely incredible. It was exactly what I had wanted from India. It wasn’t just screenings, we had a proper theatrical release. Disney said they would start the film in six screens and towards the release of the film, they said they could manage up to 13 screens. And at that time, even that was huge.

Remember, this is one of the first films, easily the first film to come out in this entire wave of films, that was eventually of course followed by Court (2014) and Thithi (2016) and a variety of films that did increasingly better, each passing film. But this being the first film, nobody had thought this is a possibility. Nobody had imagined that this is a possibility that audiences will pay for a film that is so complex and so layered and in the English language.

Thirteen screens is what we had decided, because I was insistent that there are more audiences for the film in the country than Disney is able to imagine. So Aamir and Kiran came up with an idea that why don’t you prove that to them by getting people to vote for the film in their cities.

I remember this on Facebook.

Yes. We had that campaign where we requested people to vote for the film to be released in their cities. The voting kept happening, mails kept pouring in, phone calls kept pouring in, to Disney, to all of us. And finally, the film was released across 32 cities. It was released on 86 or 87 screens, did massive business, did the biggest box office any arthouse film has ever done in India. Of course, in the meantime, it was going really well. It won lots of awards by this time.

We had won the Best Film award at the Transilvania International Film Festival, we had won the Sutherland special jury mention, we had won the [Tokyo Grand Prix] at the Tokyo International Film Festival, we had won endless number of awards. We had won awards at the Hong Kong International Film Festival, major awards were won by the film by this time and nominations were won and for me what was significant was the two things happened simultaneously.

One was the Critics' Circle, UK, had requested its 15 top critics — few of them were octogenarians but had been around forever as film critics and the Critics' Circle was celebrating their centenary — they had asked their 15 top critics to put together a list of 15 life-changing films of all times. Each critic was to contribute one film and that’s how they were going to make a list of 15 films. And then they were going to have a festival of those 15 films.

Derek Malcolm nominated Ship Of Theseus and it made it to the list of 15 films. It made it to the list of 15 life-changing films of all times, making it the only Indian and the only contemporary film made in the last 25 years.

It was the only contemporary film also?

Yes, because all the other films were made at least 25 years ago. The other films were Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980), there were Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977), there was The Battle Of Algiers (1966), all the other films were classics, and this was the only new film that made it to the list.

At the same time, I thought it was equally impressive that Box Office India, this completely typically trade magazine, had Ship Of Theseus on its cover as the first arthouse success ever. I thought this is pretty indicative of something.

You started something.

Yes, I felt very reassured in that simultaneously both these things were happening.

Now it’s been five years, do people still come up to you and talk to you about the film?

Oh, yes. It’s been a profoundly reassuring journey in life. It’s been a massive turning point. Every day there are mails, even now, messages and mails have never stopped pouring.

You have shared the movie online for audiences. You have made it accessible for them to watch it. That was quite important.

It was the first feature film that had a theatrical release, a home video release, and was also legally torrentable and downloadable. First feature film in the world to do that. It was the first feature film in the world that had an official theatrical release to go open source.

That makes it possible that so many more people can watch it who never could before.

Yes, it would have been completely hypocritical of us to then start safeguarding our film when our enlightenment had been possible only through free cinema, free literature, and free culture. We have never had the money or the means to afford culture.

In 2015, you co-founded Memesys Culture Lab which aims to make high-concept, experimental cinema and new media. You have backed virtual reality as the future of telling stories. How does this new medium excite you as a filmmaker?

Virtual reality does excite me a lot. Augmented reality also really excites me. There are tons and tons of challenges, these are nascent media. They are really in the cradle right now and there is a lot of work to be done. We are looking at a seven- to eight-year-long curve ahead of us, before these media mature.

We have a platform that was built by Zain [Memon] and Khushboo and Shubhangi. They lead our virtual reality platform where we made a wide variety of virtual reality documentaries. We created this genre of VR journalism. It’s called ElseVR. You can download the app on iOS or Android.

You are also keen to mentor new work and new filmmakers.

Very much. That’s what we have been doing all these years. And not just mentor, we co-evolve. When we spot a mind with perspective, with insight, with ability, with talent, we want to learn from that mind as well. We want to see what new insights are on the table that we can expand our consciousness with. So we immediately embrace people like that.

For example, Zain joined us at the end of Ship Of Theseus during the outreach campaign of the film and then he worked with us through all projects, through An Insignificant Man (2017), through Tumbbad (2018), all the projects that we were doing and led the virtual reality vertical and now he is one of the co-founders in the company that we have. He joined as an intern, only four years ago.

Nitin [Zihani Choudhary] also started as an assistant. In only four years Nitin went from being assistant to becoming the production designer on most of our projects. He is the head of production design for everything that we create. We have wonderful journeys and I feel extremely enriched having learnt with the people and collaborated with the people who have given their time to my work.

When you started, did you know An Insignificant Man (2017) was going to get so big?

Khushboo had the foresight even then and always has this foresight about political waves. She understands them quite well. Over the years, her word has proven to be prophetic.

In a way, this is a mixed answer. Nobody knew at that time, [but] Khushboo and Vinay [Shukla] were always convinced that this was the most important story of the time and had to be told.

You were ready to back them. Were you seeing the footage that was coming in?

No, I hadn’t seen the footage, but having worked with them all these years I knew how committed they were to their ideas and how deep they were in their inquiry. They wouldn’t touch anything that is superfluous. They would never waste their time or anybody’s time on anything that wasn’t profoundly important. So the fact that they were so passionate about something is itself so rare, because they are not easily impressed.

The team also faced a battle to get the film released.

The censor board under Mr [Pahlaj] Nihalani’s ill-conceived direction was a big battle. But thankfully the FCAT [Film Certification Appellate Tribunal] cleared it with a verdict in our favour. It was a really well-written verdict, too. And then there were attempts at stopping the film at various levels.

There was an attempt to have a high court case against the film, and the high court never took on that case, because it didn’t make sense. And there was a Supreme Court case that was filed by the individual who is documented, not only by us but by various reporters around the country, who splattered ink on Mr Kejriwal. He was the one to file the Supreme Court case to stop the film, calling it prejudicing a case that’s under review. The Supreme Court, of course, overruled that and again passed a fantastic verdict which has now set a precedent that documentary films have to be certified and cannot be banned.

An Insignificant Man (2017)

What did Mr Kejriwal say when he saw the film?

(Khushboo Ranka, who was also present, interjects) He said it’s interesting.

One word! What did you think of the film when you saw it?

I loved it. I thought it’s easily the best documentary feature I have seen in my life and I kept saying this to everyone and everyone said that’s only because I am part of it. But I haven’t stopped telling Khushboo and Vinay that that this is easily the best non-fiction feature I have ever seen in my life from anywhere in the world.

It’s such mature filmmaking. The fact that they didn’t do any interviews; they let the story unfold like a work of drama. They were unimpeachably honest to the material. They kept their honesty going while they were in the middle of a community for an entire year. They did not start mingling with the community, they didn’t become a part of the community, which is a very difficult thing to do, if you imagine. To stay there for one year and to keep that objectivity constantly, so that you are doing your job of a watchdog, of recording everything with complete honesty and integrity, it’s an achievement. It’s an achievement that I have never seen repeated anywhere in the world.

I don’t think a documentary like that can be made again.

Yes, exactly!