It doesn’t make any sense for Ship of Theseus to work in a country that pushes films like Race, Dabangg, Ghajini, Housefull, Rowdy Rathore, and Chennai Express into the ₹100-crore club. It has three separate strands that float into one another. Its dialogue borders on bombast. It explores philosophical concerns that hardly anyone has time to play with after the teens. Its ideas are intangible, its moments of clarity ephemeral. Worst of all, it merited rave reviews from critics at the Toronto International Film Festival and the BFI London Film Festival, among others.

Endorsed by filmmakers like Shyam Benegal and Shekhar Kapur, Ship of Theseus released in several cities, and held on to screens even after the release of Chennai Express. The film is a triptych, with three stories that come together at the end: a blind photographer Aliya finding her way through Mumbai; a monk who crusades for animal rights; a man who wants to return a kidney to the labourer it was stolen from. In the aftermath of his success, director Anand Gandhi chats about the ideas that led him to make Ship of Theseus.

Ship of Theseus feels like it’s been in the making for a while. When did the journey start for you?
There have been various trigger points. I was in fact just writing a blog post, where I was talking about the genesis of one of the ideas, my search for a narrative metaphor best suited for resolving the philosophical problem behind it. In 2005, as Khushboo Ranka and I were making our featurette Continuum, we had started developing a magical-realist story of a blind hockey player. The story was going to be a socio-political allegory, using sport as a laboratory of human experiment. And the character played tournaments for the visually impaired, for a team that invariably lost.

The central concept of the plot was to follow her through a vacation, carefully avoiding central action points, and return to the field with her, where she wins game after game for her team. So, the audience is invited to solve this very easy-to-decipher enigma—what happened on vacation? It turns out, not as a grand point of reveal, but as a completely understated easy-to-miss disclosure, that she had a cornea transplant, and that’s why her team starts winning. This was the genesis of the idea.

Then we were writing a completely different film and we wanted to put in this story, and we thought the hockey player should be part of an anonymous group, because we were excited by the idea of an anonymous group—it’s a social phenomenon that’s fascinating, where strangers come together, providing solace, understanding and advice to each other based on one common, often traumatic, experience or malady.

We made the blind hockey player a part of that group, but the question was what could possibly be binding them together in a group. And we thought of various anonymous groups—everything from Alcoholics Anonymous to Sex Addicts Anonymous to Alien Abductees Anonymous—and all of it was fascinating, but kind of obvious at the same time.

Then, this idea occurred to me and Khushboo, that the one thing that binds them is that they share this physical thing—I don’t want to give spoilers here, but you know what I’m talking about—and that worked for us. And this idea fit in with the problem we wanted to resolve: Ship of Theseus. So then we built the other characters from here.

But why did the blind hockey player become a blind photographer?
Oh, I was discussing this idea with my director of photography, Pankaj Kumar. He liked the film, the whole story, but not the blind hockey player. He insisted we look at the work of Evgen Bavcar, the Slovenian blind photographer, and make the character a blind photographer instead. I was a little reluctant because I felt it was a forced irony.

It’s a bit sensational, and it’s also like a first-time writer’s or a first-time filmmaker’s tendency to be drawn to that sort of thing­—a deaf DJ or a deaf composer, the idea of juxtaposing extremes, you know. But I started thinking, how do I avoid two major clichés, two major tropes. One was the sight-restoration trope, and the other was the difficulty of readjustment to the environment after sight restoration.

Now, these tropes are prevalent in all stories about the blind. If you have a blind person, you know that at some point she will get her sight back; and once she gets her sight back, you know she will have difficulties coming to terms with her new world. So, avoiding them was the biggest challenge for me. Then, at one point I decided I’ll go with it and do it well. These tropes occur in movies often; it’s just that they haven’t been handled with dexterity and sensitivity. I decided I’ll bring those factors in, rather than fight the trope itself.

Were you happy with how it came out in the end, or did you feel it could still have worked out better with the blind hockey player?
Umm ... I can’t say about the blind hockey player, because that would have been a completely different film. But as a part, it works very well in the whole that Ship of Theseus is. I’m happy with the fact that it’s extremely sparse; it’s an experiment I’ve not done before, and I’m not sure if I’ll be engaging with that idiom soon again. It’s an experiment from a cinematic point of view also, from a film grammar point of view for me, where I chose to make something stark, completely absent of chaos, and based on only one character.

I’m happy in the sense that I feel this is the best I could have done. I’d set myself certain challenges with that particular story, to take up a story which I felt was a very obvious idea, an idea every film-school student wants to do. I read an article in Mid Day and some time back there was a blog post, which speaks about how there was a short film about a blind painter, and the part about the blind photographer seems to have been taken from that. I got offended, because to begin with, I don’t think it’s such a novel idea. (Laughs) For me, the challenge was to take that trope of a visually-impaired artist and go beyond, to link it to the philosophical problems I was interested in.

Would you agree that a lot of the impact depends on the audience’s personal experiences? For instance, the story I could relate most to was the second one, about Maitreya. I’m into animal rights as well, and I don’t take medicines, and I often wonder about a circumstance under which I may have to choose between my life and my principles.
Oh, how lovely! Absolutely, I’ve had very different groups of audiences coming up to me and telling me they could relate most to one segment. Derek Malcolm said the second story was a masterpiece, one of the best pieces of cinema he had seen in his life, and the first one and the third are good cinema. I’ve had filmmakers from France tell me the blind photographer story was the film for them, and it could have just ended there, they didn’t care about the rest. (Laughs)

So, I’ve had a completely varied group of audiences responding, and that again is heart-warming, that the range of the film is working so well. A while back, someone had come to interview me, and she’d seen the film in Ghatkopar East, and she was saying the night show was packed, and there was an ovation at the end. The reason I feel the audience is responding so diversely is that the film has a kind of diversity. It moves from the intuitive to the logical, from order to chaos, from design to serendipity, and I think it’s that range people are finding a relationship with.

And that, for me, is very important. That was the intention, to create a film with entry points for people with various kinds of experiences.

All these stories played out like allegories, especially the third one. It is far-fetched for something like that to happen. Did you ever think about how this is a gamble? You're choosing between realism and metaphor in each of these films.
Yeah, I agree that there’s a parable-like quality to each of these stories, and I took some risks. I let my reasonable characters suggest completely unreasonable things, such as “Kidney lauta doon”, you know. I was aware of the risks involved, the risks in just making this grown-up man go and get a pillow to bury his face in, or of two women playing badminton randomly. So I was constantly doing these things, to either fill out a detail or to bring in some surprise, and I wanted to see what happens when you take those risks.

I could not have relied on any other source of information, any film I’ve seen or book I’ve read, to give me that knowledge. Since this was my first full-length feature film, I felt I should try anything out, anything that people say can’t be done or shouldn’t be done. So I also allowed myself to do that, to see how people respond to it, to see how I respond to it, when I see the film finally.

Like the three stories told in a continuous manner, without any title cards; usually, there’s a bit of a bridge for the audience to walk on, or they are three narratives that are interwoven, to keep the audience’s interest going. And a lot of screenwriters told me that this has not been done before because this doesn’t work. You cannot make the audience travel from the beginning of an arc to the end of an arc, and then start all over again, and then start all over again. I just couldn’t buy that. I intuitively felt they could work together to create an experience at the end. So, it was a bit of an experiment, where it just cuts from one story to another, without a title card or a suggestion.

At the centre of each story, and I think in the film itself, there are these lofty debates along the lines of discussions that students of literature or philosophy may hold. Of course, there’s the Theseus paradox, and then a subtle nod to the Allegory of the Cave at the end. But in the context of reaching out to a broad audience, and also in terms of making returns—because, obviously, a producer like Kiran Rao will have commercial saleability in mind too—were you worried about it going over people’s heads?
No, I wasn’t worried, because I was using cinematic idiom. If I were writing a book, I would be worried about whether it’s going over their heads. If it were just a conversation between two people that I was writing down and putting up online, I would be wondering whether the audience would understand the discourse, because they would engage only with the discourse.

But the great thing about a film is that there is a layer of discourse, a layer of narrative, and there’s a layer of experience. There’s a layer of visual, sensory experience. And when you combine all three, you can create profound experiences. So, yes, there is a clear, head-on commitment to the discourse. There is also an equal effort to interact with the narrative, to create a relationship with the audience. So, it’s not just the discourse—it’s also politics, it’s the story, it’s the relationship, it’s the audience’s empathy for character. It’s coming together as an entire package.

You were obviously determined not to compromise on quality. I know you may have had budget constraints, but it doesn’t look like a budget film. So, how did you go about the financing? Because I think Kiran Rao stepped in much later?
Yeah, Kiran stepped in after the film was made, she stepped in to present the film. It was financed by one of the actors—Sohum Shah—who plays the stockbroker, Navin. He’s a wonderful actor, as you’ve seen: extremely talented, extremely natural, extremely realistic in his rendition of his character, and also builds a very deep relationship with the character.

He understood the character and the context thoroughly, and he was also convinced that this film would work with audiences, this was a film he would want to see as audience. And he said that since nobody is going to finance a film at this point, he’d step in as financer, and he really stood by us. It wouldn’t have been possible to make the film without him.

Once the film was made, it travelled to festivals, and Kiran saw it at the Naya Film Festival. She really loved the film, and she came on board, again without expectations; it was with the idea of making sure the film reaches audiences, not of making money from it. Everyone was on board not with short-term myopic expectations, but with a long-term commitment to push the boundaries of cinema, hoping to create the possibility of a certain kind of aesthetic, a certain kind of dialogue in cinema. And that made it easy.

Tell me about the casting. You have an Egyptian filmmaker, Aida El-Kashef, playing Aliya, and Sohum Shah is a realtor. And you had theatre veterans in the cast too.
Well, I’d seen Sohum in a film called Baabar, and I knew he was an actor with great potential. When he came to audition for the part, I was already curious, and he really outdid our expectations. He’s seen everything. He’s had a vast journey. Along with casting some people I already knew, who would fit certain parts, one brief I had given to everyone working on the casting was to look for individuals who had made extremely grand journeys in life and not content themselves with finding actors.

When you look for actors in the industry in Mumbai, you find a lot of aspirants who have moved there with a certain dream, but who have not had the privilege of grooming. They’re essentially young people who spend enough time in gyms and dance classes, but have not had the opportunity to look at their craft. So the brief was to not look for actors, but for people who have had interesting journeys, because they bring their journeys into their characters, somehow.

I think that came through very well, especially with Neeraj Kabi and Sohum Shah, who took ownership of their characters. Aliya’s character, as you said, was a trope, but these two were tricky to handle.

The great thing about a film is that there is a layer of discourse, a layer of narrative, and there’s a layer of experience. There’s a layer of visual, sensory experience. And when you combine all three, you can create profound experiences.

Tell me about finding Neeraj Kabi. He seems to have put in a lot of commitment to the film. I could see he lost a lot of weight for the role.
Yeah, he lost 17 kilos through the shooting. We shot with him over four months, and each month, he lost about four kg. At the end, he’d lost 17-18 kilos. Even before we started shooting, he’d prepared for the role. It was a six-month commitment, when he didn’t do anything else. For four months, he prepared for the film: he changed his routine, turned vegetarian, walked a lot. He felt he had 15 years of catching up to do with what I’d read in my entire journey, so he caught up on all that, and read a lot of material ... he had long, long discussions with me about what he was reading, and what he was making of it. He was internalising the character in a very meaningful way. 

I didn’t know him from earlier, but I had seen him perform in a play, long ago. He was just wonderful ... walking on tall stilts, with a painted white mask, and I just remembered his voice, and the way he moved his body, and the way he had really owned the part. So, when I was casting for Ship of Theseus, he was one of the people I called to audition for the part.

But you must have also had to be very careful about how you were shooting his story, because if you’re losing four kilos a month, you can’t suddenly go back and shoot a scene you missed from earlier, or which you thought would fit in well earlier.
Exactly. It just had to be shot chronologically. We didn’t have a choice. Actually, we pretty much shot the whole film chronologically, but Maitreya’s story had, perforce, to be shot that way. But the whole script was written, and the film sticks very closely to the written draft. I spent a long time writing the screen play; it took me two and a half years. The actors knew the text in and out, and their interaction was very meaningful.

When I was looking at the dialogues, they seemed to be written dialogues, not the idiom of everyday speech, and I think that goes with the feel of the film. Was it challenging for the actors? Did you have rehearsals before the shoot?

Yeah, there were lots of rehearsals. But, in Neeraj’s case, because he plays an academic, I was willing to believe he speaks in that language, you know ... because if I was to engage in a philosophical debate, I would be using those words, all of us would be using a syntax of that nature. The only thing that needed to be done was to pop in a little bit of realism, to put in rightly-placed fumbles, and rightly-placed overlaps, and rightly-positioned misconstruing of words. Just to inject realism into it, there was some kind of structuring to be done.

But once Neeraj started preparing for the part, he and Vinay had long discussions, long conversations of the nature now in the film, with each other, with me, every day, through the rehearsals. So they were, off-screen also, beginning to talk in that language.

I also noticed that there were many long scenes in all three stories, where expression was key and the camera stays on the characters for minutes at a time. What was the rehearsal schedule, before you started filming? How long did the actors rehearse with you?
The actors had very, very long rehearsals with me. Aida and Faraz (who play the blind photographer and her boyfriend respectively) had extremely long rehearsals. In fact, when Aida came to Bombay, we did a little experiment. We blindfolded her through our rehearsals for a week, and we didn’t let her see Faraz. So she rehearsed with him without knowing what he looked like, and then when we opened her blindfold, she looked at Faraz the way she was supposed to during the film.

It was only simulated, it can’t possibly be a real sense, but it could give her a glimpse of what it feels like to get to know someone, to build a relationship with someone, without knowing what he looks like—because she had dinner with Faraz, she had long conversations, but had not seen him. So we tried to find ways of simulating certain experiences.

Where it was not possible, we discussed at length the nature of these experiences. For example, Neeraj’s delirium, where he starts talking about random things, when the infection has gone into his brain, and he says, “Ma ko bulao”. That one moment we discussed for hours and hours, and we pulled out all this literature from neuroscience to find out what it is that happens in delirium. All of that helped with understanding what is happening with that character at that moment. Sohum and Amba rehearsed quite a bit. We had rehearsals starting a few months before the film, and we continued through the shooting.

I went to see it with a friend, and we had very different reactions. For me, the second story made a lot of sense because the character’s principles coincide with mine, and I was fine with the characters being vehicles for ideas. My friend felt the character needed more social and political context, and he felt the ideas were not explored as deeply as they could have been if the characters were more rooted. We don’t know what happened to them before, and what happens after. When it came to characterisation, too, you took a big risk.
Yeah, I’ve had people ask me, “So why has that monk made this choice? What motivated him?” and I’ve had people ask me several questions regarding the set of choices these characters make, or the words they use, or the way they see the world around them.

As far as I’m concerned, I followed the course of each character, and the character’s emotions, thoughts, philosophies, in the most complete and coherent way I possibly could. I’ve spent days and months thinking and writing and keeping them real.

I find it curious when people have different reactions. My ideal situation will be that everyone completely gets the film, that everyone engages with every single aspect of the film, and every single layer of the film. (Laughs) And, of course, that’s not possible.

Each of us is going to engage as per our experiences, as you said. I’ve found that people who have had these concerns, or who have engaged in a certain form of logic and reasoning, in trying to build inferences in their lives and then implement those inferences in a practical way, find the second story appealing.

Those who are maybe disillusioned by the historical failings of logic, find the first more relevant, watchable, enjoyable. I’ve had people call me up and say the first story was grand, the third story was really good, the second story didn’t work for me as much, because I found Charvaka’s character annoying and I don’t get why Maitreya’s doing what he’s doing.

I understand where they’re coming from completely, because I understand that they’re engaging with the film from a very different channel. Some tell me they find the third story most exciting, because it doesn’t participate in discourse head-on. It keeps that layer hidden. The characters are much more everyday characters. So, for me, it’s heart-warming that there are so many people finding so many channels to engage with it.

In the first story, you raise a debate about the ethics of photography. Aliya seems to think it gives an artist more motive to create a work if she brings in elaborate sets and lighting and to stage a photograph. Whereas a lot of people believe that you need to be in that moment, click by coincidence or good fortune or pure instinct, and that’s the true essence of a photographer. What’s your personal stance?

I can share a small scene that I deleted from the final film in the context of this. Just before the scene where Aliya speaks about staging photographs, she’s online, and browsing through different sites, and her boyfriend Vinay walks in, and she shows him some wonderful photographs. He looks at them, and he asks her about the photographer, and she says, “Monkeys have taken these pictures”.

There was an experiment where monkeys were given cameras, and they were incentivised with food to click photographs. So they kept running around and clicking. And that was curated and presented in the gallery, and people bought them for thousands of dollars. The whole idea of intention versus accident, of subjectivity versus an objective scale to measure art comes into play when we talk about what is considered aesthetically or ethically preferable. And I think the central question has been whether we can have an objective scale to measure the greatness of art, whether it lies in the function, whether it lies in the process, or whether it lies in the end product and its relationship with the audience.

To me, with a film like Ship of Theseus, my aspiration was to fill in as much experience as I possibly can in two and a half hours. A photographer does that with a photograph­—tries to capture the entire essence of an environment in her work. Aliya has a very strong need to do that, to capture her entire environment, her entire experience in one image. So, for me, in the end, the photograph has to achieve a certain level of content density, a certain level of openness, or vastness, that allows different people to have different experiences from it. That’s what I would want in a film—for each person to relate to it differently, depending on their life experiences and world views—and that’s what I would look for in a photograph as well.

What made you delete that scene? I think it would have been exquisite.
That would have been a good scene, no? (Laughs) Yeah, there were several good scenes that I had to take off. My first cut was three hours, 15 minutes. So there are many that I was attached to but had to take off. I was really happy with the idea when I came up with it, that I would resolve the problem with this idea—where she shows him pictures taken by the monkeys, which are great pictures.

It’s an ode to the infinite monkey theorem: that if a million monkeys were to type away at a million typewriters for a million years, there’s a chance that one of them will produce the entire works of Shakespeare. (Laughs)

There was another connection between all the three films. The old man who comes to meet Maitreya was in all the stories. In the photographer story, I shot a scene where she takes his pictures. And in the third story, Navin is walking on the street, and his wallet falls down, and the old man picks it up and gives it to him and goes off.

I thought having one character there was a good way of bringing out the movement in the film. The concerns of the first story are very first-world if you look at it ... the central point is this girl whose problem is that she can’t take great pictures anymore, as compared to the third story where there’s a guy who’s lost his kidney. (Laughs) So the nature of the problems also moves from the abstract to the physical.

Moving away from the film a bit: right now, if you look at cinema in India, there’s a sort of division between independent films or the kind of films you make, and mainstream. But at one point, maybe 40 years ago Hrishikesh Mukherjee, or even earlier Guru Dutt, and later Gulzar maybe, were able to weave these together—posing uncomfortable questions in mainstream cinema. Do you think this can be done now?
I think it’s the best time now. Number one, you don’t have to divide audiences geographically, you can divide them demographically. You can single out audiences in different parts of the country, and reach out to those specific audiences. Also, most urban audiences in India have the privilege of the Internet for the last decade. There has been an exponential evolution in information and education in certain urban environments.

Lots of people in urban India have migrated to reading only world literature, to American television and European cinema. Most people I know personally, my friends, do not watch Indian television, hardly watch Indian films. And they consume only literature and cinema from Europe or US or other parts of the world. Very little culture produced locally is consumed by people in urban India. So, there is enough of, not only readiness, but also a craving, for local content that is contemporary and speaks a certain language.

I’m going to end with a very mundane question: the marketing strategy. I’ve seen a lot of brilliant films disappear without being noticed till the reviews come out, by which time the films have left the theatre. It’s very rare that someone can juggle both marketing and filmmaking.
(Laughs) Yeah. The first thing, I think, was all of us came together and decided not to look at the film’s marketing as marketing. It’s not semantics, just honestly what we came together and thought: Kiran, me, my team, UTV. Let’s look at the intention of the film, the spirit, and let’s look at what we’re trying to do with it, and let’s communicate that, that we’ve made a piece of cinema that truly resonates with us. And we have not made it second-guessing that somebody will like it.

Let’s look at this film as something that will trigger dialogue, trigger certain experiences audiences have not had before. We started looking at what the film really is, breaking it down, and communicating that in every conversation we had with people. So, if you look at the marketing, there hasn’t been any. There has been only press. And very little online marketing, in terms of a trailer launch event, and an event where we spoke about what we intend to do, what kind of release we are giving the film, and how we are inviting participation from people in releasing the film—how we want people to vote for the film to release in their city, so we can prove to distributors and exhibitors and show them the numbers.

We can say, “There are 600-700 people from this city who want to see it, so why won’t you release it there?” It was a very serious, genuine, transparent, honest approach, and I think that worked for the film: straightforwardness in the film and in our conversation with our audience. We were not trying to manipulate anything.

Are you daunted by the success of Ship of Theseus, and the baseline you have set for your next film?
(Laughs) Ship of Theseus was one of the less ambitious films I had in mind. I started it because it was the least ambitious of the films I wanted to make. So, I’m a little excited about what can happen next!