Anand Gandhi on “Ship of Theseus” and cinema as a medium of philosophical inquiry
What does it mean for an artist to not be able to access his own art? Is self-preservation desirable as an ideal if it comes at the cost of cruelty to animals? How is it that an organ commands more money in the market than what a lifetime of hard work fetches its donor?
These are some of the questions Anand Gandhi addresses through his film Ship of Theseus, slated for release next Friday. Borrowing its name from the ancient paradox (If a ship has had all its parts replaced, does it remain the same ship?), the film tells the stories of a blind photographer, a monk suffering from cirrhosis of the liver and a stock broker who is the recipient of a kidney transplant respectively.
Like the paradox in question, Gandhi hopes his film is a challenge to habits of thought and an invitation for philosophical inquiry. “Cinema as a medium has always been underutilised or utilised for highly frivolous purposes. I am increasingly certain that it can really be used for philosophical inquiry, it allows us to take a shot at meaning,” he says. “I think there has been a certain amount of cynicism about meaning in general in the world. It seems to have been elusive, because it has been sought either through religion or other institutions that have failed.”
Gandhi knows he isn’t the first person to know or believe this, even in India. His worry is that this, a cinema of meaning, doesn’t endure. Barring a few exceptions such as Tarkovsky, Kieslowski, Béla Tarr, Michael Haneke and Terrence Malik, filmmakers have not been able to “hold the interest of communities and engage them in this quest,” he says. He draws hope, however, from our changing attitude to the world of ideas, exemplified by the popularity of concepts such as Wikipedia and Ted Talks. “There is a certain approach to exchanging ideas and information which didn’t exist before… this is a time when we might be able to produce a culture that is informed, engaging and hopefully enduring.”
In the making of this film — apart from the practical hurdles of securing funding and resources, Gandhi also had to contend with certain creative challenges — “finding the right actors in a place where there isn’t the right kind of grooming for that kind of craftsmanship.” He zeroed in on Egyptian filmmaker Aida El-Kashef, Neeraj Kabi, a Mumbai-based theatre actor and director, and Sohum Shah, also the film’s producer, for the three central roles. “I needed them to really transform into the part. I wanted the illusion to be perfect…so that when you see it, it feels like a documentary,” Gandhi says. Initially, the film was supposed to have a fourth segment, but was dropped owing to the unwieldy length.
Although the film is releasing only in the NCR, Mumbai, Kolkata, Bengaluru and Pune, other cities are being added to the list through a voting mechanism online. Hyderabad became the first city other than these after reaching the stipulated number of votes. Explaining the thinking behind such an approach, Gandhi says, “It is to convince people and distributors that there is an audience out there that is willing to actively participate — find the film’s page and vote, which is a huge amount of work on their part — to get a film released in their city. It shows that even a film that was not imposed on them, that did not intrude into their homes with trailers and posters and hoardings, has an audience.”