Anand Gandhi’s Ship Of Theseus makes us believe arthouse creations can change Indian cinema

First came festival acclaim. Then Bollywood endorsement. Quickly followed by studio distribution. Independent filmmakers rejoiced because the release of Anand Gandhi’s much celebrated Ship Of Theseus could kick the doors open for alternative and arthouse cinema in the country.

When the Rs. 2.5 crore-budget film finally released on Friday, it opened to a Rs. 25-lakh weekend with mostly housefull shows, and the figure is expected to double by the end of the first week. While this is an unprecedented start for an arthouse film since Hyderabad Blues in the 1990s, on closer examination you realise there’s a long way to go for independent cinema in India, given the economics of the business.

The math

Ship Of Theseus opened in 23 screens with 41 shows a day in five cities, compared to the biggest mainstream Hindi films that open to one hundred times more screens and shows worldwide today. Of the Rs. 50 lakh it is expected to net at the box-office after entertainment tax, about fifty per cent of the amount would go to the exhibitor and another Rs. five lakh (a virtual print costs Rs. 20,000 including tax, cloning and cargo) towards print costs. And, we are not even accounting for weekend ads in leading newspapers.

Here’s the big math problem for indie filmmakers: even assuming the makers, studio and the presenter manage to split the Rs. 15 lakh to Rs. 20 lakh profit a week, how many weeks would it take to recover Rs.2.5 crore if you consider that the exhibitor shares increase by five per cent every week (55 per cent in second week, 60 per cent in third week, and very rarely do multiplex films go to the fourth week since the economics don’t work out given the drop in patronage).

While mainstream films have additional revenue coming in from satellite rights market, arthouse films currently have only Doordarshan that pays a maximum for Rs. 25 lakh for select independent films that have managed to complete bureaucratic formalities and apply for a slot on time before deadline once a year. Movie channels that used to buy arthouse content have shut shop and online revenue does not amount to much.

With home video market hit by torrents, arthouse films need international markets to recoup investment. Only a handful of our filmmakers have managed to cross over and monetise the international markets.

So, the burning question is: If our best independent film in ages, endorsed by everyone from Shekhar Kapur and Anurag Kashyap to Karan Johar and Dibakar Banerjee, presented by Kiran Rao and released by one of our biggest studios, UTV Motion Pictures, manages to collect only so much despite unprecedented hype and support from social networks and mainstream media, then where does it leave the less privileged independent filmmakers?

The answer is in the climactic portions of Anand Gandhi’s brilliant film when a former activist-grandma tells her stock broker son after his valiant attempt to bring about change: “Itna hi hota hai” (this is as much as it gets).

Anand’s Ship Of Theseus, despite being the best independent film to have come out of India, is hardly as deep as it pretends to be. It’s a simple, fairly accessible, populist, touching and heart-warming film while the promos made it out to be an intellectual, layered and philosophically deep film.

This uncompromising and honest film examines and deconstructs the Greek paradox through three relatable situations by literally applying the idea to humans and questions who we are if one of our parts were to be replaced. There are no new revelatory answers. Yet, you come out of the film completely moved and ponder over the meaning of life. A feat very few films made here accomplish. This could have been our best bet for the Oscars (had it been made entirely in Hindi) — it’s extremely well-crafted and performed, is laced with philosophy and wit, and leaves you with the aftertaste of having watched something profound.

It maybe argued that it is Philosophy for Dummies, but the dumbing down of the paradox and the surface-level exploration of the question is Anand’s greatest victory as a filmmaker. For, he has convinced an audience not used to alternative content about the scope of arthouse cinema. It has made the audience believe they are smart and intelligent enough to understand philosophical concepts discussed only in books.

Which is why the success of Ship Of Theseus cannot be measured or quantified in numbers. It has opened up minds. The ship has set sail in waters previously only chartered by big Bollywood films. And, given the amount of space dedicated to its success of sorts, hopefully the winds of change will set in and help smaller ships set sail in the future.

Giving hope

If you remove one commercial film from the multiplex fare and replace it with an arthouse equivalent, will Indian cinema completely change? The film, with its feel good premise, makes us believe that. We like the sound of it, even if it may not be entirely true.

Hats off to Anand Gandhi. One small step for this man, a giant leap for his kind.

(Ship Of Theseus releases in Chennai on July 26)

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