Toronto 2012: Anand Gandhi Opens Up About His Feature Film Debut 'Ship of Theseus' (Q&A)

Recyclewala Films

The 32-year-old is among a new breed of Indian filmmakers who prefer the offbeat to the formulaic. An acclaimed playwright, his movie opens TIFF's City to City program, which is focusing on cinema from Mumbai this year.

The Hollywood Reporter: What is the Mumbai that you are showing?

Anand Gandhi: It's the Mumbai that's never been shown before. It is not a Mumbai of gangsters, beggars or drug addicts. The Hindi films that have come out of the longest time have played to this idea with a gritty, dark, dingy look. I don't connect with that and I have never been to any part of the city which reflects that.

THR: But Slumdog Millionaire has reinforced that view strongly.

Gandhi: I understand that because its an English filmmaker giving his perspective for a different audience. But I don't understand why Mumbai film-makers also follow that kind of vibe. The stories I show are the ones I live. The problems I have are about what you do when you are lying on your death bed and you want a kidney from someone who is selling it to you. That's a real problem rather than fighting drug addicts. The locations I show are the places I know and have not been shown before. There are slums but there's also the middle class life. There's a larger holistic picture that can be made of the city.

THR: What is Ship of Theseus about?

Gandhi: The film came about when I was nursing my grandmother and I was surrounded by death and disease. The film began as a question asking, how do you know where you end and where your environment begins? We think we are individuals but we have three million genomes living in our body. We have ten trillion bacteria living in our body – there are far more bacteria in our gut than there are humans on the planet. So when I saw disease around me I started questioning everything I took for granted. I just realized that this concept can be best put in a situation where people are going through physical transformation.

THR: What does the title signify?

Gandhi: It refers to the paradox from the Greek legend of Theseus who re-built a ship that was ageing. Since it was replaced plank by plank, the question arises, is this the same ship? So where did it stop being the original compared to the new, which is the paradox.

THR: What would you like international audiences to take away from this film?

Gandhi: The central philosophical paradigms are more relevant than the fact that its an Indian film or a Mumbai film. I would appreciate if audiences see it as a global story and not just a Mumbai story. The central question of where do you begin, of your identity, that you are a constantly changing entity and environment – these are what I want to engage audiences with and have a philosophical dialog. This is a huge thing cinema should be doing. That's the kind of cinema I love, that is so relevant to us at a fundamental level.

THR: Putting this project together, what kind of challenges did you face, given the film's offbeat content?

Gandhi: It's the same challenge that any filmmaker in the world will have making this kind of film that is meaningful and relevant to our existence. Its much easier to make junk – food, thought or culture. So it was tough and I was also going through a difficult patch economically. But I landed up in the right place and time and was able to convince some people. The final budget is about $800,000 and its shot on digital.

THR: The project got a boost after it was picked up by Fortissimo Films last October at the Film Bazaar in Goa (organized by India's National Film Development Council). How has that experience been?

Gandhi: Fortissimo have been very supportive and are co-producers ever since they boarded the project in Goa. We had a lot of discussions and [Fortissimo senior vp, acquisitions and development] Chris Paton has been participating in the film as anybody would who comes on board. He took me to Paris and put me on distributors and we got feedback from all over. [Fortissimo chairman] Michael J Werner has also been giving his feedback and all of that is very helpful.

THR: Also, director Shekhar Kapur (Elizabeth) has been a fan ever since he saw a rough cut at Goa.

Gandhi: He has been very, very kind. After seeing the film, he tweeted, “I can go to the mountains now.” I just hope he makes his film (Kapur has been developing Paani, examining the scarcity of water in a futuristic Mumbai) and I am also working on that.

THR: You come from a background in theater so how did you use that experience for your feature debut?

Gandhi: My theater was very cinema inspired and a lot of plays were like screenplays that were very visually driven. I also wrote a bit for TV shows and then started making my first short film Right Here, Right Now which went to Tribeca and also won best short film at the 2004 Syracuse festival. Then I followed up with another short film, Continuum, which also traveled to festivals and won at Hanover. So these experiences gave me the impetus to focus on my feature film debut.

THR: What kind of projects are you working on?

Gandhi: I am writing and producing a couple of projects. After Ship of Theseus, my company (Recyclewala Films) has a bit of credibility. We are producing Tumbad (named after a fictitious village), an extremely moody atmospheric, contemporary Hindi horror film. Its directed by Rahi Barve who earlier made a short film Manjha which impressed Danny Boyle and it was included in the Slumdog Millionaire DVD. At some point, I want to make interesting science fiction. And I would like to work with actors such as Michael Fassbender. I just loved him in Hunger.

THR: There is a general acceptance now that a new wave is sweeping Indian cinema as reflected in some of the other entries in Toronto's City to City program. What is your view?

Gandhi: A lot of people I know in Mumbai are doing a lot of great work, making very personal films that are relevant to them. I am very optimistic. There are some films in the City to City program made by people my age, some making their first feature who have been trying to do it for a while. I am excited and it's a very good time.