Anand Gandhi has made a name for himself as a writer in recent years but now he is making the transition into feature films with his new project Ship Of Theseus.
The movie sees him make his directorial debut and it has been screened this week at the BFI London Film Festival.
And it was in the capital where we caught up with the man himself to talk about the film and the inspiration behind it.
- Ship of Theseus is your new movie so can you tell me a little bit about the film?
It is a narrative fiction and it is a philosophy drama, I am not sure if a genre like philosophy drama exists but it has kind of stuck now and a lot of people are calling it that.
It begins with this idea… one of the bigger points for me was this discovery that the human body is made up of millions of bacteria and not just the human genome.
So the old idea that the human being lives in balance started to feel a little big fictitious because if you took away this bacteria from the body there is no way that the human would survive.
So the human being is not this sacred entity but it is has been colonised - but together the bacteria and the human genome make a collective entity which is the human body.
I found this challenge to our notion of identity, individuality and who we are very very interesting. Along with that there was the age old story of the ship of Theseus where Theseus would build a ship and then the ship was replaced piece by piece and plan by plank over time to a point where not a single part of the ship remained - so the question that arises is is it the same ship? Or is it a new ship?
That applied to the constantly changing and shifting identity of the human being - not a single cell remains the same - we change psychologically, physiologically and in so many other ways but are you the same person?
And that applies to the entire human race and all other species and that is in transit all the time as every twenty or thirty thousand years new additions come up and other additions are cancelled out - every species is in transit to something else. So all that was really the trigger point for this movie.
- The movie marks your directorial debut so how did you find the whole experience?
It was a really inspiring journey. I had read all my life filmmakers talk about how working on a film really changed them and really transformed them and I think that the film really transformed me and inspired me.
The movie really brought me upon ideas that have really reshaped the way that I look at the world and myself.
- There are a string of different storylines in the movie that look at identity, justice, death, redemption so where did you interest in that lie?
I think that philosophical questions need to be constantly rephrased and I am trying to find my role as a director and an artist constantly.
We are living in a time when science is constantly throwing data at us - all kinds of sciences such as physics, micro-biology and social sciences - and I am not sure that we have had the time in the last few years to really sit down and really assimilate this data and make sense of it.
It has been a few months that the Higgs Boson was discovered for example and I am not convinced that we really know or I really know what it means to have this particle - and I really want to know how this impacts my life and how it impacts my understanding of who I am and this place that I am living.
So I think that is where I find my role as a filmmaker, as an artist and a writer as I can take this data that has been constantly thrown at us and make sense of it. I can assimilate it and deliver it in narrative metaphors that make these more complex ideas more accessible.
- And I was reading that you didn’t want to cast exposed faces for this movie so can you tell me a little bit about the casting process and what you were looking for?
Not only did I not want exposed faces but I was also convinced that there were not enough actors in India right now who could attempt what I was trying to attempt.
Acting has become extremely structured and extremely defined and the responses continue to become more and more staged and fake and, like many of the filmmakers of the world, I am not a fan of that.
And so the challenge was to really strip the actor from any structural inhibition that they may have had. I came across really really interesting people, some of them I knew and some of them I discovered while I was making the film.
Aida El-Kashef takes on the role of the photographer and she was quite a discovery as she is such an amazing talent and a powerhouse of talent. She is an Egyptian filmmaker and between shooting the film she was going back home and fighting the revolution.
I met her at a film festival in Hannover where my short movie was playing alongside hers and when I was beginning to work on this movie she flew down to Bombay just to help me out. So she would sit in for the auditions of the boyfriend’s part and she was just so good. So that is how we discovered Aida as the actress in the film.
Sohum Shah was another very fortunate discovery because he became crucial in getting the movie made. Nobody really knew about him, he had done this really bad mainstream film but people were talking about with some enthusiasm.
And when he came down to audition I was really suspicious because he came from an extremely gangster movie space and this is a completely different space.
But as soon as he walked in the room he started talking to us and he was in character already as he had done his research and he was doing something cool - at first I was a bit suspicious again because the way that he had done his research was a bit too much for me (laughs).
But he was a great discovery as he went on to call upon people to raise finances for the film and he came on board as a producer as well. I hope to make many movies with him.
Neeraj Kabi, who played the part of the monk, is like a monk himself; he wakes up at five o’clock in the morning and he does his martial arts. He is a very serious actor back home and he is taken very seriously and has been offered many roles in cinema.
I thought that I should take a chance because I really wanted him to play this part. He was just the most amazing actor as he lost about 18kg and so each month he would lose 4 or 5kg and then we would go and shoot with him to the point where he really shrank down to the bone.
- This movie raises a range of questions and ideas through the different stories so how did you find pulling all that together in the edit? And was it a difficult edit?
It was a difficult edit mainly because there was a lot of ambitious - it was 160 page script; it was basically a theses there that I had to cut down and try and make it as real and as logical as possible.
So it took me a while to get through all that. I also had to assimilate all these scenes together - the first cut was about three hours and twenty minutes long.
So it was are really engaging process and we had lots of editors that came on board; we had about four editors on the film and they all had a very unique vision.
- And how have you found the response to the film so far?
The response has been really amazing and really validating. People have responded really well and that is really what I wanted.
The general public at the Toronto Film Festival responded really well and I was walking on the street over the next few days and I kept running into people who hugged me and told me that the movie meant something.
- There is a really intimate feel to this movie so how did you shoot it?
We shot on the ASLR and my DOP and I have a very old friendship and really old relationship - he shot my second short film and since then we have been working together.
He gets involved at the ideas stage and I say ‘hey, how about I make something like this as it really fascinates me?’ And he comes on board at the moment and he stays on board until the end of the film.
So that makes the process easier because we have a very clear idea and I completely trust him - because I use a lot of handheld I have to trust my DOP completely.
There is a lot of improvisation between actors that I allow, the lines are strict but the moments and the rhythm are improvised.
So the process is very intuitive - the script, the staging and the setting is very precise and planned - but once we are there it is all very intuitive.
- Finally what is next for you?
I am producing a film right now, that is also being shot by the same DOP. We are almost done shooting that film now and it is a horror thriller - so it is a very different film to Ship Of Theseus - but it is a very visual and graphic horror movie. It is in the tradition of Sin City and 300 so it is very grand and graphic kind of film.
But I am also working on my next script, I have missed a couple of deadlines already, but I am looking to get that finished shortly and will start work on it immediately.
BFI London Film Festival runs 10 - 21 October
FemaleFirst Helen Earnshaw