Anand Gandhi, the scriptwriter and director of Ship of Theseus has used his constantly changing worldview to graduate from popular television shows to New Indian Cinema, writes Suchetana Bauri.
In Plutarch’s Ship of Theseus, the vessel that successfully brought the king back from Crete was preserved for several centuries by Athenians who replaced the old planks as they decayed with new and stronger timber. This ship became a debate among philosophers, with one side arguing that despite the changes the ship remained the same, while the other side was convinced that it had changed irrevocably.
Anand Gandhi’s film explored this question of identity and change in his film by posing the central question: Where do we end and where does our environment begin ?. Everyone who has seen Ship of Theseus has found this paradox intriguing. The film has won awards and acclaim from critics as well as admiration from cinegoers.
Gandhi recently visited the Annapurna International School of Film + Media (AISFM) to share his understanding of filmmaking in an exclusive Masterclass for AISFM film students.
Students were taken on a journey into the mind of Anand Gandhi that created a cast of memorable characters each with their own unique worldview.
What is a worldview?
Anand Gandhi explained that the worldview determined how his film looked and how the story was told. He explained that this worldview comprises one’s experiences in a lifetime — interactions, ideas, books one has read, and films one has watched. This means that the human brain conceptually processes our day-to-day experiences in order to our articulate its worldview.
Gandhi went on to explain that it is something like the Kabira Khada Bazaar Mein – there must be a constant awareness of the consciousness. This does not happen instantly, it needs a ceaseless training of the mind to develop an objectivity towards one’s own subjective experiences.
It’s a constant evolution. Experiences help us become multilinear. He further said that the worldview must constantly change with the arrival of new information and we need to readjust our worldviews with the changing times. Instead of relying on a faith-based ideology, we need to keep updated on the new facts that are constantly being offered. This makes us more tolerant of different worldviews.
How do you arrive at the structure of film?
In run-of-the-mill films, the worldview emerges by default from the subject at hand, the idiosyncrasies of the actors and the team making the film. However, in a film like Ship of Theseus, the filmmaker has taken a much more deliberate approach. So Anand first decided on the thematic statement that his film would make and then worked on developing the rest. His characters, their stories and their worldviews came out of the central theme that he wished to explore.
Anand Gandhi emphasized that, Ship of Theseus celebrates the worldview of atheism, which is part of the Indian religious heritage, but is hardly talked about in the mass media or in cinema. In fact, people outside the country are unaware of this ancient tradition of atheism.
Constant influx of experiences, constant downpour, the ruminative entity of consciousness, which constantly makes recommendations is difficult to control but is an important influence on the film. This can have both be advantages and have handicaps when it comes to cinematic representation. Cinematography can set up a situation and a gripping mood in seconds, but its inclusiveness can be bewildering with its array of detail. Films must use framing, blocking and editing to draw the viewer’s attention where it needs to be. The worldview sets the aesthetic agenda for practically everything in the film.
On a lighter note, Anand said that he wanted to see some smart characters on Indian screens. He was tired of seeing the 40+ actors playing college-goers in mainstream cinema or at the other end of the spectrum, the parallel cinema that champions the cause of the oppressed.
How did you connect with viewers?
Gandhi said that the audiences reacted very well to the film. However, viewers in different parts of the world connected with one rather than all the three stories in the film. The Spanish and European viewers responded best to the first story about Aaliya, the visually impaired talented photographer.
Gandhi also noted that the Indian viewers were saturated with formulaic content that is churned out on a regular basis. He said he aspired for a better cultural environment.
On directing actors
The fact that Gandhi had many years of experience working in theatre and conducting drama workshops for non-professional actors helped him a lot in making films.
Gandhi also admitted that he was very lucky to have actors like Aida, Neeraj Kabi and Sohum Shah…they were just perfect. In fact, Sohum is one of the best actors that Indian cinema has seen in the last couple decades. The dialogues and monologues were mine but their personalities nuanced and brought the characters to life.
Gandhi rather than directing his actors, he instead facilitated them to discover the characters on their own. And it helped in the evolution of the characters.
How was the film’s observational and fluid cinematography achieved?
Viewers and critics have been impressed with the cinematography, particularly in the way that the essence of Mumbai has been captured in this film. This obviously led students to ask the director how he was able to collaborate so effectively with the cinematographer, Pankaj Kumar.
Gandhi reminisced that Pankaj Kumar and he met when Pankaj Kumar saw his short film, Right Here, Right Now. So Pankaj Kumar called him and said that he liked his work and wanted to work with him. Pankaj showed Gandhi a short film that he had made, called Solitary Sandpiper. And within the first couple of minutes Gandhi knew that he had found his soul mate and that he wanted to shoot films with this guy for the rest of my life. Gandhi was impressed with how Pankaj could frame through his camera what the director want to convey to the audience.
Sudhakar, the faculty for direction, asked about the logic behind shooting the many long sequences in the film. Gandhi told him that it was an intuitive decision, he was very attracted to the magic of the unfolding scene/shot. He was drawn to the experience of it. He was extremely attracted to magic and as a child he wanted to be a magician, scientist, engineer, filmmaker…. He became a filmmaker because he could do all the other things.”
The masterclass soon took the shape of a structured conversation, in which the students learnt more about the decisions that went into the making of the film. Long after the class was over, it was particularly pleasing to see the youngsters chatting with the director.