“My education began when I dropped out of college.” No, I am not looking at a message printed on a teenager’s tee. I am in conversation with Anand Gandhi, the director of the critically acclaimed film Ship of Theseus. Ruffling his overgrown, salt-and-pepper hair, Gandhi speaks softly, throwing in a soft smile occasionally. Everything other than his messy mane is neatly organised in his Yari Road office in Mumbai. Papers and DVDs are all stacked up. His grey-and-white chequered shirt looks stiffly ironed. The laces of his brown tie-up shoes are in place, too. Quite a toned down look for someone who is considered a ‘maverick’ filmmaker. Gandhi is evidently not a man who prefers clutter. The lone black couch, the antique book shelf, the wooden chair and the sprawled out mat—the only pieces of furniture in the room we are sitting in–is testimony to it. A bowl of cat food waits at the foot of the couch for Tinkerbell Prasad, Gandhi’s pet cat.
“I dropped out when I was in my first year of senior college,” says Gandhi, 32. “I read a lot. I pursued all the ideas that came to me. I studied philosophy at Illinois University for a year.” Finally, he decided to do what he was best at from the age of eight—writing. “I wrote my first play when I was in Class 3, which my mother directed and it was performed in my school,” says Gandhi. “By the time I was 16, I had started writing professionally.” Three years later, Gandhi scripted 80-odd episodes of two of the most iconic soap operas of the Indian television history—Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi and Kahaani Ghar Ghar Ki. Gandhi laughs at the mention of his television stint and says, “I think that experience helped me immensely in growing up and evolving my skill and craft as a writer and thinker. However, I retired from television at 20 and have decided not to go back.”
Two short films, Right Here Right Now and Continuum, and many international film festivals later, Gandhi is finally making his feature film debut with Ship Of Theseus (SOT). “A philosophical drama,” is how he describes it. Complicated stuff, I tell him. “No,” he says. “This is what is happening to the youth of today. And, this precisely is the
battle that I have chosen to fight with my films.” His voice is now a bit firm. “So, what is my battle?” he asks. “I want to re-associate cinema with inquiry. I want to re-associate entertainment with intelligence. Youngsters of today believe that if something is intelligent, then it cannot be entertaining. I do not blame them for it. I feel there is this entire campaign that has been going on from the 90s to inspire the youngsters to feel cool about their ignorance. All my films are arguments against that culture.” It is like home food v. McDonald’s, he explains. Though “home-cooked food is tastier and healthier than McDonald’s, their burgers do great business. So, instead of talking about the difficulty in making cinema of relevance, we should accept the fact that junk sells and position our battle with that in mind.” With SOT, Gandhi wants to prove that the youth of the country are not dumb or frivolous. “I believe that young people are infinitely curious, really talented and are inquiring, and need to be engaged with intelligence and good quality culture,” he says.
It took Gandhi a year and a half to pen the film’s storyline that explores the philosophical questions behind identity. It weaves in three stories—of a blind photographer who regains her sight, a monk who is fighting animal testing of medicines and a stockbroker, who gets caught up in a kidney racket. “It is a tale of redemption, maturation, illumination, fear of death and paranoia,” says Gandhi. “It is like a sum total of all the questions I have asked since I was five years old.”
The casting was more time-consuming. “Auditions went on for a long time,” he says. “I was not insistent on new faces, but on actors who are incredibly good. My search, however, took me out of the mainstream and ended when I met three highly interesting individuals.” Aida-El-Kashef, a second-generation Egyptian filmmaker and an Arab Spring revolutionary, didn’t even audition for the role she ended up playing in the film. She was helping Gandhi with the auditions, and after many days of reading out parts of the script, he was convinced that he had finally found his character in her. “Even Neeraj [Kabi], who plays the monk, is an interesting person to get to know,” says Gandhi. “He lives his life like a monk, which is why he completely fits the part. He committed so much—mind, body and soul—to his character. He read extensively for the role and lost 18kg to look the part in the latter half of the film.”
Sohum Shah, the third lead in SOT, was the “discovery of a lifetime”, says Gandhi. Shah stepped in as producer when Gandhi and Co. ran out of funds. “When he got to know that we had no money, Sohum said that he didn’t want the vision of SOT to be compromised by a producer who didn’t understand it fully,” says Gandhi. “It is true that a film can completely transform you,” he says. “In the three years of living with SOT, I learnt a lot about myself, my environment and my relationships. The whole journey was enlightening.” So, does a film like SOT need names like Kiran Rao and Aamir Khan to promote it? “At this point, yes,” says Gandhi. “I feel both Kiran [who is presenting the film] and Aamir have at their disposal a powerful infrastructure that connects a film like mine to the audience. I feel they are acting like bridges by taking SOT to so many young people who are starving for content that speaks to them in an intelligent way.”
The movie is slated for release on July 19, after which Gandhi’s production company, Recyclewala films, will divert all its attention to the post-production of its next film Tumbaad, co-written by Gandhi and directed by Rahi Barve. “As a child, and to some extent even now, I was incredibly attracted to magic,” he says. “Which is why I always wanted to be a part of something like Tumbaad, which is a dark horror fairy tale.” However, as a young boy, Gandhi wanted to become neither a magician nor a writer. “I remember I was six when I first watched the film Mera Naam Joker,” he says. “That film gave me clarity. I ran to my mom and told her that I had finally decided what I want to do in life.” What was it? “A joker,” he says, with a laugh. “I wanted to grow up and be a clown!” He can probably write another film which will let him live this long-lost dream of his.