As the planks of Theseus’ ship needed repair, it was replaced part by part, up to a point where not a single part of the original ship remained in it anymore. Is it then, still the same ship?
That’s the premise of Anand Gandhi’s film, Ship of Theseus.
“That’s an outrageous amount of sugar in your coffee,” Anand Gandhi noticed as I poured a stream of sugar in my Viennese mocha — a fair, and unsurprisingly acute observation after I dismissed his pastry and noted his exacting eye as a filmmaker. Someone who imagined statements with angles of sunlight, or the dampening of a sheer robe during a walk of deliverance in the rain, certainly wouldn’t miss a pin drop or an extra second of sweetening.
I met Anand Gandhi, a young and bespectacled artist, at the Hungarian Pastry Shop in uptown Manhattan, where he sipped on what I assume was a not-that-sweet coffee over an Art Spiegelman graphic novel and a journal-in-use. His film Ship of Theseus has been lauded both by critics and international audiences alike, is now screening in various parts of the States. There was recent buzz over the possibility of it being India’s official entry to the Oscars (it was not). I sat down with him to talk about his movement from being a writer for one of India’s most popular soap operas to a director of a radically new cinema, where philosophical maladies wax poetic in a globalizing world.
Oscillation is a key term for Gandhi, who aspires to capture the idea of effortless movement between languages, cultures and identities in his medium. The protagonists in Ship of Theseus are a trinity of thinkers, caught in both quotidian and extraordinary circumstances. A blind, Egyptian photographer in Mumbai as comfortable as a native resident, drifting in an Anglophone world The protagonists in ‘Ship of Theseus’ are a trinity of thinkers, caught in both quotidian and extraordinary circumstances.interspersed with Skype-variety Arabic. What happens to her world, the filmmaker explores, if she can see? A pious, dhoti-clad monk drifts between reason and religion. What happens when his life and death eventually depend on a choice between the two? A stock broker’s sleuthing a leads us to a Stockholm living room, exposing humanitarian crime and opening the problem of bodily agency. What are the coordinates of our ethics? There is a natural existence, and coexistence, of the worlds Gandhi attempts to capture.
Ship of Theseus is a masterpiece of experimental filmmaking. Images are crystalline, with an elegant yet delicate quality. The three characters negotiating their own aesthetics, identities, and bodies verge on documentary-style story telling. Individual scenes of mundane movements — a windmill punctuating dramatic landscape, macro shots into a damaged cornea, an argument over chopped vegetables — are spun into fragments of awe through the gaze of its maker. Sometimes the dialogue is sparse. Sometimes it is overstated, but calculatedly so. The literal combats the sentimental — it is, after all, edging close to India’s cinéma-vérité.
This is an enigma in contrast with popular Indian film. Bollywood tends to reproduce caricatures to excess, preferring the overstated to subtle. Bollywood, which Gandhi says is a term of appropriation, brands itself as something reality isn’t for many. Luxury and privileged frivolity are consumer favorites, along with spontaneous and grandiose musical spectacles. Fantasies about Indian expatriate life, and palatial dwellings are regular motifs. They are often complimented with side-plots that are structurally Bollywood, which Gandhi says is a term of appropriation, brands itself as something reality isn’t for many.reminiscent of Shakespearean dramas or dialogues of antiquity — these are legacies deeply rooted in the ethos of Indian story-telling. This milieu is conceived of and sold by people who belong to what is internally known as the “film fraternity” — what the Bollywood industry calls itself — and it is a fraternity. Generations of actors inherit fame and access to roles in blockbusters. They are family friends, kith and kin, and open about their professional exclusiveness. The scope of cinematic imagination is then limited to the lifestyles of the elite oligarchy that Bollywood seems to be. While Gandhi is yet ambivalent towards this topic, and leans toward considering it “chaotic” and often “unexciting” — he does note that Bollywood has been changing in the recent years to resemble more realistic narratives.
Despite the fact that he keeps stellar company within Bollywood itself, Gandhi’s preoccupation is elsewhere — and that is perhaps where his difference lies. To him, film, above all, is a medium to exercise perspective: “There is an epithet about the poet Kabir — standing in the middle of the market,” he says, “and he’s looking at things being sold and things being bought, and he’s looking at To him, film, above all, is a medium to exercise perspective.people laughing and crying and feeling jealous and angry and fighting — and he’s just standing in the market and seeing all of this. I found that metaphor extremely validating. The idea of the person on the boat saying the shore is approaching, and the person standing on the shore saying the boat is approaching, and the person above it looking at both the boat and shore saying neither move towards each other. It’s a perspective vortex, and that became a singular aspiration, I was willing to go far for it. Willing to go deeper and deeper and willing to take risks with my education, with my work.”
Gandhi, while audacious with his risk-taking sensibility, is in a comfortable place — though his background is humble, and not from a film dynasty, he recognizes the rootedness of his artistic pursuits in a foundation of privilege: “I’m a very privileged kind of artist” he says, “I’ve not had deeply, external causes for deep troubles. I’ve had a deeply troubled curiosity, deeply troubled relationship with the idea of death, the idea of transcendence, if its possible to have meaning, sometimes it is emotionally taxing and depressing, so I’ve had those to inform my art and cinema, but I’ve not had external forces bringing me trouble.”
Gandhi’s recognition of his privilege even extends to his own work as an artist in the legacy of Indian new wave and art cinema: “I don’t think there’s a film like Ship of Theseus. I’m not being conceited when I say that, I know that as a viewer of cinema, a consumer of cinema.” Gandhi is a witness of his own peculiar positioning in the age of technology, where the internet provides a vehicle for expression, thereby differentiating him from film artists of the past: “My audience can be sitting anywhere in the world, I have a great privilege that the “experimental” or indie filmmakers and artists didn’t in their time. I think my aspiration is rooted in the same impetus, but it has evolved and become more ambitious. We are not the first people who attempted it and achieved it — Satyajit Ray has achieved it, for instance. There had been a moment in India where this happened, but it disappeared for various reasons. And this time it can be sustained: I am not geographically confined because of the Internet.”
Technology also mobilizes his sense of wonder: “I’m very interested in the experience of awe,” Gandhi says, “its kind of a cumulative experience, probably made up of wonder, curiosity, a sense of vastness, a sense of infinity, an overwhelming grasp of “I’m very interested in the experience of awe.”the magnitude of the universe in comparison in comparison of the infinitely small presence you have in that magnitude, and I think all of that is the singular experience of awe.” Gandhi reflects on the genesis of his preoccupation with enchantment, and considers the possibility that it was his mother’s passion for Indian pop culture, story-telling, and fierce spirit of wanderlust that inspired his own curiosity. Through travel, and his own auto-didacticism, he aspired to be a physicist, a magician, a writer, among other whimsical occupations. He was taken by the likes of Galileo and Newton, and fashioned his thinking according to the snippets of life-affirming peculiarities each great thinker possessed.
It is yet another paradox, then, that Gandhi broke norms in India by dropping out of college. He sounds more like a professor than he does a pop artist — flashing terms like “ontology” and criticizing the degree to which Hegel and deconstructionism populate It is yet another paradox, then, that Gandhi broke norms in India by dropping out of college.academia’s “archaic” way of looking at film as a fossil, and not a scientific art. At an early age, he recognized the power of free will and adopted the discipline required of his decision: “I clearly told my family: it is for the pursuit of education, not the abandonment of it, that I want to leave school.” He read voraciously, inspired by science and physics, theories and axioms, theater and cinema — and became a writer in his own right.
I have long been certain the underbelly of Indian cinematic history — what is curiously deemed “parallel cinema” — is where its genius lies. Now that his film is out — there is a question of category. In India, Gandhi’s work might well be under the umbrella of that very “parallel cinema” — which loosely translates to something in between “indie” and “art-house” and “box office disaster” in local parlance — and it generally has a connotation of pretension and slighted inaccessibility. Gandhi coldly dismisses that accusation, re-interpreting the geometry of Indian cinematic traditions as not parallel but adjacent, even intersecting. “There is a growing need for new cinema,” he asserts, “and it’s happening.”
As for resolving Plutarch’s paradox about the anatomy and identity of a broken and re-built ship — one should already know a film like this wrests more questions than answers. Gandhi spoke at length about the unbecoming of a spiritual self to a complete attainment of certain atheism, a decision of reason in contrast with the “weak answers” religion seemed to offer. And hence, Gandhi is also not interested in providing weak arguments, or rickety resolutions. The answer is hidden in continuation, with creating conditions that open more questions — as the axiom continues:
If all the discarded parts were used to build another ship, which of the two, if either, is the real Ship of Theseus?
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Ship of Theseus plays tonight in Dallas at the Angelika Theatre & Cafe. For information on upcoming screenings visit the film’s Facebook page.