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The Intersection of Cinema, Art, and Existential Philosophy

By Girija Sankar Email By Girija Sankar
May 2014
The Intersection of Cinema, Art, and Existential Philosophy

 

If one were to chop this film into its composite stills, many of these still shots (as at left) could be celebrated art.

 

The National Film Award winner Ship of Theseus is a remarkable film, not the least because Anand Gandhi, the man behind it, offers a promising package of creativity, art, and inquiry—all on an alluring canvas.

The use of the word “canvas” to describe the visual element of a film is both somewhat clichéd and often errant. “Movies,” after all, are all about moving images, while “canvas” has been synonymous with paintings, a decidedly static medium, even when it comes alive through artistry.

It is only rarely, while watching a film like Ship of Theseus does it dawn on us that there is, after all, some relevance and even wisdom in using “canvas” to describe the visual element of a film. If one were to chop this film into its composite stills, many of these still shots would rival the most celebrated of our canvasses.

Indeed, this visual artistry, combined with equally exquisite and nuanced sounds, makes this film, first and foremost, a memorable sensory treat. One soon realizes that the other elements of the film such as casting, acting, and direction match up to the benchmark it establishes through its fine sheen.

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What can be more oxymoronic than a blind photographer? But not so fast! The character of Aaliya Kamal (played by Aida Elkashef) is more than willing to defy such a generalization.

What is most energizing though is that the whole enterprise of cinematic art and entertainment is in service of a philosophical inquiry into our selves. This is done through the stories of three diverse characters who come holistically together to fulfill this ambitious undertaking: a blind photographer rebelling against and overcoming her handicap, a Jain monk caught between the friction of his aspirations of moksha and his human frailties, and a conscientious stockbroker.

The deftness of the film is not surprising considering Anand Gandhi, the film’s 33 year-old director, has been interested in theater since the tender age of seven. At 19, he was writing dialogue for Hindi soaps like Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi. From dabbling in stories of quotidian quarrels to evolving to subjects of existential inquiry came natural to this filmmaker who says, “One singular aspiration in all my work is to attain the quality of awe. And what is awe? Awe is when you come across something that is infinitely complex and inexplicable in its origin.”

Not surprisingly, he crafted Ship of Theseus around the question raised by Plutarch, the Greek philosopher: If a ship were reconstructed entirely through parts borrowed from other ships, is it still the same ship? Those so inclined will see in Gandhi’s film questions like these: What makes us who we are? Are we the sum of our parts? Woven in are also themes touching up on identity, justice, beauty, meaning, and death.

At two and a half hours, the film does test the audience’s patience, even if only a bit. Some scenes—the monks trudging through a semi-rural landscape—seem gratuitous. The conversations between the characters, while mostly intelligent and thought-provoking, sound stilted in places, almost as if the storylines have been forcibly shoehorned into the lives of the characters to fit with the grand narrative of the original Greek thought experiment.

In summary though, throughout the film the director’s prowess is evident in the subtle alchemy of philosophy, realism, and humor brought together by brilliant visuals and a keen sense of time and place. The film has been duly rewarded with accolades at several film festivals, culminating in the top prize at India’s National Film Awards for 2013.

Khabar spoke to Anand Gandhi before a special film screening of the Ship of Theseus in Atlanta at the LeFont Theaters.

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“One singular aspiration in all my work is to attain the quality of awe. And what is awe? Awe is when you come across something that is infinitely complex and inexplicable in its origin,” says Anand Gandhi, the man behind Ship of Theseus.

We’d like to hear about your background and interest in filmmaking. Can you talk about your transition from writing for soaps to Ship of Theseus?
I was writing for Kyunki when I was 19 years old. So that was a while ago. And, it’s not been a linear transition. Even then I was doing theater that was more directly related to the content I am working on now… I think there are two kinds of evolution that happen in an artist. One is the evolution of the worldview where you make yourself more and more informed and you expose yourself to the greatest breakthroughs in science, in evolutionary biology, in neuroscience, in physics, and you keep yourself informed with the greatest breakthroughs in thinking. And you inherit the ancient wisdom. So, (as an artist) you constantly work on the worldview. And the other thing is the craft. You work on design, sense of colors, composition, layout, on moods, on dramaturgy, on structuring, technique, and all kinds of things that have to do with craft and how you have put things in order to create a certain meaning. You understand the language. You understand that words when put together in a certain permutation create a certain meaning and a certain emotional response in people. That’s one of the other evolutions that happen. So when you use the skill set that you have acquired over a period of time to articulate the worldview that has evolved over a period of time, art emerges from that. That’s the consequential evolution. It has been a long journey. There have been many, many milestones, so it will be impossible to distill down to a line.

Can you talk about one of those many milestones?
Well, the first one for me would be the first play that went out into the world. It’s a Hindi play called Sugandhi. I was 19 years old when I wrote it. I had written plays before that and they had been performed in various spaces but this was really the first major work. It had a great response around the country and won several awards. It was very, very validating. I think that was a first milestone, in terms of being able to articulate a complex worldview into something visceral and intuitive.

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Navin (Sohum Shah) is out to prove, if to no one but himself, that beyond his deal-chasing stockbroker persona there is someone who places his ideals above money.


You’ve talked about certain aspects of what made you who you are. Following that train of thought, could you talk about your training in the craft of filmmaking?
From the point when I started learning language, I started writing. I began writing the moment I learned to write. And I was very inspired by the fiction that I had come across till then in my life. My mother had exposed me to a lot of theater. So by the time I was seven years old I was already a theater fan. I used to love going to the theater to watch plays. And for some reason I had the arrogance to think that I could write plays, even though I was not equipped to do that. So I started writing at a very early age. I wrote my first dialogue piece, which I thought was a play—it was actually a skit—at the age of seven. I started performing in small skits and sketches that I would write for schools and community events. And I would gauge the response that every line and every movement would generate. Based on that response I’d return to the same piece and modify it. Then I learned another thing, something that has stayed with me since the age of nine and has been my way of writing till today. And that is to not keep going back and changing the narrative again and again. Instead just narrate the story and see the response. So I started doing that. Before I would pick up the pen I would build a whole narrative in my head and share it with people. And each time based on the response I would get I would put it back on the paper. And the story would keep evolving over a period of time in my head—till it was complete with nuances and quirks and small observations and contradictions, and rich and holistic— till I started sensing that it’s a wholesome piece of work. And once I felt like I’d gathered enough material I would start putting it on paper. That is my process.

Have you had any formal training in filmmaking?
I dropped out of my first year of undergraduate education. And after that I chose my own education. And I designed it in a very formal way. I stuck to it with a lot of discipline. So by that measure it’s very formal.

You talked about how your mother got you into reading fiction at an early age. Can you talk about some of your early inspirations? Things you might go back to often...in fiction, nonfiction, or movies?
The inspirations have steadily changed. But there is no one thing that I go back to from an early period. I have witnessed a very steady evolution of worldview in craft and in things that engage me. And I feel no nostalgia towards material that engaged me when I was younger. So I don’t necessarily go back to most of it. Of course there are some things that are timeless. Like Dr. Seuss! But I don’t necessarily go back to Dr. Seuss, right? I probably do it somewhere in my subconscious, though. But there have been lots of people that have inspired me steadily. And there are some who have not dropped off the list.

Like?
Kabir is one poet who has not dropped off the list ever. He has inspired me since childhood.

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Maitreya (played by Neeraj Kabi), the Jain monk, represents mankind’s epic struggle between selflessness and self-preservation.

 

What do you expect audiences to get out of this film?
One singular aspiration in all my work is to attain the quality of awe. And what is awe? Awe is when you come across something that is infinitely complex and inexplicable in its origin—and yet comprehensible in a singular gasp of experience. And for me it is an incredibly important emotion, an incredibly important emotional experience to engage with the cosmic void that humanity has been in a constant dialogue with for 13,000 years. And for the longest time, the void hasn’t answered back. In the last century, we have steadily and exponentially found relevant answers from this void, and that has fed into this feeling of wonder and awe that we have. A century ago the narrative was that if we probe too much into it we would lose out on our potency of wonder but it’s exactly the reverse that has happened. When we’ve looked into the molecule we found the atom and when we looked into the atom we found the electron and when we’ve looked at the electron we have experienced sheer awe at its quantum probabilistic nature. So each time the awe has expanded— and for me a film has to grasp that, and translate that experience. And that’s what I’m aspiring that the audience (will take away).

Have there been films that have had the same effect on you?
Yes, there have been many films. There’s Michael Haneke’s White Ribbon. There’s Songs from the Second Floor by Roy Andersson. There’s Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, of course. There’s (Stanley) Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. There’s (Krzysztof) Kieslowski‘s The Decalogue. There are lots of films that have done that for me.

Could you comment on the state of the contemporary Indian film industry? Where do you see your role as a filmmaker fitting into the larger film landscape?
See, I don’t know because …it’s a very specific kind of reality that Indian filmmakers face. I mean, when it comes to filmmakers, we are asked to comment on the industry always. You know, writers aren’t expected to comment on it. You wouldn’t expect (Michel) Houellebecq to comment on [the state of] French literature. (Laughs). It’s a very specific thing that I find very curious. Who am I to comment on an industry that I am not necessarily informed by—and I am not an active participant of?

So you don’t see yourself as an active participant in the Indian film landscape?
I mean, I see myself as an active filmmaker out of India. I see myself as an active cinema enthusiast, and cinema maker out of India who is informed by the cinema of the world and contributes back to the cinema of the world, not just India. So I find that question a bit limiting.

Is the movie now available for free in India? If so, why is that?
Yes, because we have benefited so much from the open culture the last decade or so. My friends and I could not have received our education were it not for this open and free culture…and sometimes, the student culture. So it would have been completely hypocritical of us to adhere to dated copyright laws when we ourselves have benefited from the open sharing of knowledge and experience.

Can you comment on the documentary style that you have employed in the movie even though it’s all fiction?
Yes, it’s shot the way that you would usually expect documentaries to be made. And the reason for that was to perfect the illusion of reality. To make it look so real that it’s almost confusing.


Girija Sankar is a Atlanta based freelancer whose work has appeared in Eclectica, JMWW, Alimentum, Youngzine, and Muse India.




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