Asking unsettling questions

A HOLISTIC VIEW OF THE WORLD Comes from scientific inferences, believes Anand Gandhi Photo: Bhagya Prakash K.  

A young Indian filmmaker has got the world’s film circles talking about his debut feature film Ship of Theseus, that takes off from a philosophical argument and weaves into it three human and contemporary stories that question our very existence. The film has already won eight awards at international film festivals ranging from Transylvania to Hong Kong. Anand Gandhi was in Bangalore to discuss the film before its release on July 19. Excerpts from an interview:

Why did you make Ship of Theseus (SOT) into a film and not write a book, considering it’s based on philosophy?

Because I love cinema. I have learnt immensely from the experience of the moving image. To all the ideas and imagination that a book can present, add a sense of wonder, awe, coming from a visual experience, from motion, image, sound, performance. And real people that you can reflect with, and mirror the experience with, in a very real way. I can talk at length about the neuro-aesthetics part of it. And neuroscience part of it — how mirror neurons get activated when you see a film. If I put my hand in boiling water that you can clearly see, the same pain neurons will be ignited in your brains, according to V.S. Ramachandran (the famous neuroscientist). He did some cool experiments.

Where does your obsession with neurons and cell biology come from?

I think that to have a holistic view of the world, to have anything close to the semblance of a unified theory, a synthesis, you need to rely greatly on lab inferences, on inferences produced by scientific enquiry. I think all thinkers in the past did that. We are privileged to have this huge database of scientific information. As a philosopher, the job is to assimilate it, write a book. My job becomes relevant as an artist and filmmaker if I’m able to take that further in creating allegories, metaphors, and narratives. And create experiences that translate those assimilations, inferences, questions in a way that they are getting transferred, and not dictated, and prescribed.

How do you give nebulous thoughts and philosophies a visual form?

That’s usually the biggest challenge. One is to translate. I love to translate into visual triggers that are coherent in narrative forms. There’s a story going on. The second challenge is to not be didactic. To not let the author invade the character’s space. These are two challenges I was conscious of, when I set out to make this film. I’ve been doing this for an incredibly long time and that has helped me. I wrote my first play when I was six years old. And I’ve been writing in a particular way all my life. This particular task of taking abstract properties, fundamental ideas, equations, algorithms, and finding ways to translate them to stories — it’s just something I’ve intuitively developed over a long period of time. It would be difficult for me to deconstruct it.

People are now choosing to dumb down, not wanting to use their minds. Does that bother you? You’re making a film compelling people to think, when they are unwilling to think…

It bothers me generally that we’ve fallen prey to this mass manufacturing of consent and this validation of ignorance. It’s been a very clear campaign since the 90s, and it’s been exponentially aggressive. And I’m not suggesting a conspiracy theory here. The wheels are set in motion in a very complex way. Even the cogs of the wheel are not aware that they are part of this machinery. They are participating in this machinery which is allowing for people to stay ignorant, validate their ignorance and then be able to sell them products they don’t need in the first place. Sugar and fat for example — junk food. This over-consumption of super-stimuli of sugar and fat…it’s triggering an incentive mechanism and making us feel good. It does not require you to be aware of yourself in context of this massively shifted environment you’re living in. The same thing occurs in culture. Junk thought is much more easier to mass produce and mass sell. Again, why is that laziness desired by most people? Because the human brain consumes one-fourth of our metabolical resources just to be able to live! To have to think, everyone has to be convinced of a serious fitness consequence! It’s frustrating of course that we’ve found ourselves in this global campaign of dumbing down, but instead of that discouraging me, it encourages me to do what I’m doing. It makes my role a bit more relevant. It distracts me from nihilism or existentialism that I would otherwise have to engage in.

But you were the same guy who wrote the dialogues of Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi and Kahaani Ghar Ghar Kii, on TV! The guy who’s saying all this is not THAT guy!

(Laughs) No. It’s probably the only defence I have — that I was 19 then. I had just begun to explore the possible things I could be doing with my skill. I wrote for theatre, then wrote for TV; there’s a greater continuum of work with the theatre I did than with TV. But I immediately started realising this is not the space I wanted to be in. The plays I wrote are much closer to the films I made. TV was a function of being in Bombay. You become a cog in the machinery. You realise all this only when you get an opportunity to step back and see the larger scheme of things; not many even get that opportunity. A series of advantages and disadvantages gave me the privileges I did. And I realised this is not what I want to participate in.

Was it difficult getting started off in the first place on this new path?

Between age 20 and 28 — 20 was when I stopped writing for TV and 28 is when I started working on Theseus — I started researching then for it. It took four years for the film to be made. In that period I educated myself, travelled a lot, met, lived and worked with amazing people and made two short films — Right Here Right Now and Continuum. So by the time I wanted to make Theseus there was an excitement about what I’d been doing, though in small circles. But none of that materialised into funds; somehow I felt I would be able to manage funds. So I went ahead and started casting and found these amazing actors – Aida, Neeraj, and Sohum. I’d been talking to French and Hungarian producers; none of that was falling through. Sohum started noticing that we can’t put this film together if we don’t finance it. He said ‘These Europeans are going to take a year to start understanding what you’re talking about; there are no references, no examples of such work done before. It’s unprecedented. What will you tell them what kind of film you’re making? I trust this film and process so let me finance it’, said Sohum. This film would not have been possible otherwise.

Is the Indian audience ready for a film like this?

Ya, ya! The Indian audience is ready. There’s a huge Indian audience that’s been craving, starving, for content that is original, local. Even though a lot of us feel like global citizens today, and most of us are consuming culture from around the world. There’s a huge discontentment I’ve been sensing, I’ve had it myself. And a lot of these people have migrated to watching cinema and TV of Europe, U.S.A, or Iran. Most of my friends are rarely even consuming Indian literature. So what about this huge audience? Who’s catering to them? Then there is the audience that has been exposed to mainstream American or world cinema, but have had this growing sense of suspicion that Indian cinema does not match up to the work that comes from outside. At least in aesthetic. So SOT looks like a visually contemporary film. The third thing, there’s a huge audience who’s not had the privilege or opportunity of any kind of exposure of cultural information and education. This is the category I belonged to when I was 16. I had no access to cinema or TV from any part of the world; literature, yes. All I’d seen was Bollywood, parallel Indian cinema, and some American films. Then at 16 or 17 I was exposed to Iranian films, and French. I was completely blown away and something opened up in my mind. A completely new way of looking at the world. I felt I had been the victim of some kind of a massive cheating, that I’d been deprived of education, culture, meaning, relevance, good conversation, and aesthetic, and every single way that nourishes the mind.

Article corrected for a spelling error

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Printable version | Nov 28, 2021 6:08:59 PM |

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