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Anand Gandhi, Ship of Theseus

Screen talks to Mumbai-based filmmaker Anand Gandhi whose debut feature, Ship Of Theseus, will receive its world premiere in Toronto.

At India’s Film Bazaar projects market in Goa in 2010, young filmmaker Anand Gandhi created a stir among sales agents and festival programmers with the showreel and script of his debut feature, Ship Of Theseus.

The following year he returned to Goa with the project as a “work-in-progress” and Fortissimo Films announced that it would co-produce and handle international sales on the film. Gandhi’s journey is now taking him to the Toronto International Film Festival where Ship Of Theseus opens the “City to City” programme, which this year focuses on Mumbai.

“It was extremely useful to show the unfinished film to people like Chris, Shekhar and Derek,” says Gandhi, referring to Fortissimo’s Chris Paton, filmmaker Shekhar Kapur and UK critic Derek Malcolm. “I needed to explain more about the characters and it challenged me as to what I needed to do to finish the film.”

Since Film Bazaar, Gandhi has added some scenes but also trimmed the film from a running time of over three hours to more manageable 139 minutes. He’s also worked on the sound with Hungary’s Gabor Erdelyi, who has worked on several films with Bela Tarr including The Turin Horse.

The end result promises to be cerebral, visually stunning and completely different to anything we’ve seen before from independent Indian cinema – even in a year that has already thrown up several surprises. Named after a philosophical paradox, the film comprises three stories which explore questions of identity, death, evolution, dogma and change.

One story follows a blind photographer, brilliant despite her disability, who loses her talent when she recovers her sight. Another story revolves around a monk who has to choose between death and taking medicine that has been tested on animals. The third story follows a stockbroker who is incensed when he discovers a kidney tourism racket, but then faces the recipient of a stolen kidney living in Sweden.

The paradox of the title raises the question of whether an object which has had all of its component parts replaced remains fundamentally the same object. Gandhi applies this paradox to people: “The film is a question, or rather set of questions, that have intrigued me and my friend and DoP Pankaj Kumar,” Gandhi explains. “I’m fascinated with the idea that a human being is an organic cumulative, a colony rather than an indivisible whole. The paradox of Theseus’ Ship, when applied to human beings, throws up a series of interesting ethical problems. All the cells in a person’s body regenerate entirely in seven years. An individual goes through a shift psychologically, ideologically and physically. Is it still the same person?”

He continues: “I wanted to ask whether we really know where we end and our environment begins.”

Although Gandhi studied philosophy in college, and then under his own initiative after he dropped out, he says the film has much more personal origins – he was faced with many uncomfortable questions while nursing his grandmother in hospital. He started writing the script but struggled to find financing until he started working with a promising new actor – Sohum Shah – who until that time had been working in mainstream films.

Shah helped bring in the film’s producer and financier, Mukesh Shah, who fully financed the under $1m production. The cast also includes Egyptian actress and filmmaker Aida el-Kashef and India’s Neeraj Kabi, who we’ll soon see in Amit Kumar’s Monsoon Shootout and opposite Harvey Keitel in Kranti Kanade’s Gandhi Of The Month. All three actors had to undergo a major physical transformation – either by losing or gaining weight or learning the body language of a blind person – as well as explore the psychological transformations of their characters.

Although he seemed to appear from nowhere at Film Bazaar two years ago, Gandhi had previously drawn a lot of attention for his plays and short films. He won India’s National Award for his first play Sugandhi, written when he was just 19, and his first short Right Here, Right Now (2003) screened at the Tribeca Film Festival and won best short at the Syracuse International Film Festival.

Judging by the enthusiastic tweets from filmmakers such as Shekhar Kapur and Anurag Kashyap who have already seen Ship Of Theseus, we’re likely to see a lot more of Gandhi. He’s also set up a production company, Recyclewala Films, with Mukesh Shah which is producing a further two features – one directed by himself and one by promising short film director Rahi Barve.

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