A wannabe magician, a certified geek, an incessantly bumbling philosopher, a closet activist, an indie filmmaker, and at the base of it all a seeker--Anand Gandhi is a success story of an individual who doesn’t have much going for him aside for the fact that he is an exceptionally curious guy. In the big, bad world of Bollywood and Indian cinema, where curiosity doesn’t extend as further than a badly made whodunnit, here is a filmmaker who uses the trait that is technically responsible for pushing humanity this far, as his main trade currency and it seems to be serving him well.
We indulged in a freewheeling conversation with the filmmaker who reminds us that one can still make films here with a different formula.
In conversation with Anand Gandhi…
I. Reza: Tell us a little about your journey.
Anand: It was a very long and theoretical journey. And that’s the same process I have with my friends; both Pankaj Kumar and Sohum Shah. That’s the process we have been engaging in for many years now, of using films, of trying to use cinema as the incredibly powerful potential that it has. It can be a tool that can lead to serious epiphanies, it can be a tool that leads to very profound experiences, it’s a tool that can enlighten a human being, and I think it has been highly underutilized in the world, especially in India. All of us have kind of come together with that one intention to utilize it to its maximum capacity.
II. Reza: When did you start getting interested in cinema?
Anand: I was watching this film called Sylvia, and there was a scene about Sylvia Plath and her marriage with Ted Hughes and their tumultuous relationship. Sylvia comes from this very rich family, while Ted Hughes comes from this very working class background. And there is one point where they move to the US from London. Teddy has become the published poet who has broken into the scene and everyone is just talking about teddy and his poetry. Now this is at a party that Sylvia’s mother throws for Teddy. Teddy has never been in a rich, upper class environment and there are all these rich women surrounding him and talking to him and saying, ‘ooh we love poetry.’ So Teddy asks ‘which poems? Which ones in specific?’ and he sees right through it and Sylvia’s mother sees through that so she follows him into the kitchen, goes up to him and says, ‘please bear with my friends. They have not had your advantage.’ Teddy is offended by it, he asks ‘what advantage?’ She says ‘the advantage of having to work for what you want.’
Similarly with me, it’s a series of disadvantages that became extremely great privileges in the long run. Sometimes a series of advantages become bad, it’s a very unique permutation of a lot of random events that you find yourself in over a period of time that end up totaling to some kind of an advantage. In my case, the advantage for me was having being over exposed to popular culture at an early age among other things. The second advantage was to be encouraged in the notion that this is damn easy and I can do it. For example: when I was young I was always encouraged. Like if I said I wanted to invent something, that notion was encouraged. I was asked ‘what are you inventing?’ This one time, in theory, I wanted to make a machine that is actually a piano. A tiny synthesizer of a piano with each key pushing a crayon on a typewriter, and each key rolls over it. So if you play a composition it would show up like colours. And my mom, since she was encouraged too, would run around and try and get me all the ingredients. I tried to put it all in a box, and of course it failed miserably. I failed quite a lot at these. Another ambitious experiment was a seismograph. I produced a play called White Elephants in Denmark where I refer to that incident in my life. When I was 11 years old, I happily declared in school that I was going to make a seismograph. It was a 9-month-long project and I was referring to all these books in the library which were all American publications so the measurements were all different. Now you didn’t have hardware shops back then, I’m talking about the eighties. There was no concept of a supermarket in Mumbai! So with that, everything was a replacement. For a certain kind of a wooden shaft I had foot rulers, and instead of a string I had a shaft. So after nine months of hard work I finally put all of it together in a box and when the time finally came when I was to reveal the seismograph, as soon as I opened it, the whole thing just fell apart. Everyone was just waiting for me to put it back together and I couldn’t put it back together. So that is one nightmare in my life. You know, now every time I’m making something, I keep telling them, ‘ iska seismograph hone wala hai’ III. Reza: Was there no pressure to study at school? You dropped out isn’t it?
Anand: There was never really a push because I was always pushed by my own inquiry. Until I decided to drop out I was a good student. I dropped out of FYB.Com. Worst choice of my life to have taken up BCom. I’m talking about ’95 so also, there was nothing then. I was in 10th in 95 so when I was 15 there was nothing. Of course, there’s nothing much available now either in this country in terms of education but back then there truly was nothing! There was no internet, no information, no exchange. We weren’t a global city at that time. In that world I made a mistake, I should have taken science, arts and commerce at the same time but I only took commerce. That’s how it worked, education. I wanted to do Math, Economics, theatre, Physics and microbiology. I also really, really wanted to study Philosophy very badly but there was no opportunity for one to study everything.
IV. Reza: Who have been your favourite philosophers?
Anand: They’ve changed. I evolved from one thinker to another. At 15 it was different forms of people. Teenage angst was Ayn Rand and I was so shocked because I had no doubt in my mind that I was Howard Roark! Of course I changed (my view) now I think she is very limited in her scope and her vision. She doesn’t take into account a lot of things like religion for example: she doesn’t take into account the way we have evolved genetically and then socially/the social constricts which have evolved over a long period of time. She doesn’t poke into the reasons as to why they have evolved. She just has this very naïve, simplistic and reductionist opinion on it and that opinion has a ring of truth in it. That’s the reason why it resonates with so many people around the world. But it’s a teenager’s opinion, ‘the world is wrong and I am right.’ It’s true, in the sense that there is a truth to it. In that sense, yes the world is not working in ways that is benign and beneficial to the human race in general, we aren’t collectively beneficial to our own collective good! But it is also true that we operate in collective systems that are incredibly idiotic, incredibly corrupt and lacking in integrity. It is also true that an individual who invents or pushes the way we are going to see ourselves and the world around us is going to struggle against forces of conformity and stagnation and inertia. It is understood. And for a teenager that reaffirmation itself is the clincher! But as you grow older you realise there are ways to demolish this construct. Ways that are far more intelligent and intricate ways than she was able to grasp.
V. Reza: So how did you make a living as a teenager?
Anand: I started working since I was 15. I was dying to work. When I was 14, I romanced the idea of being a philatelist. When all kids were collecting stamps, I went all the way. The idea at the time was that if you are going to do something, do it all the way. Do it all the way and reject it, but reject it at a superficial level. If you are engaged by it then explore it. So that was a constant advice that kept coming from mum and grandmum. So if we went to a party and there was a magician they said, go ahead and do it. They would go and tell him that ‘my son wants to become a magician, how can he do that?’ My mum went and made friends with the magician. She didn’t have any money, she was incredibly poor. Till I was 13, we were living in a house which was literally like a jhopdi. Two sheets of tin and bricks. So there was a chawl, and we were even outside that! (laughs) So, right outside the chawl there was this jhopdi kind of an area where we were lived in one of those houses, she had no money and she was separated from my father when I was 8 etc. but somehow she had this vision. I don’t understand it in retrospect. In fact, as I grow older it baffles me even more. Right now, I am older than she was while she was raising me. I’m 32 now and she was only 20 years older than me… so, when I was 7 or 8, she was 27 or 28. And she has not had the privileges I have had, she has not had the education and the information that I have had access to so it baffles me where her vision came from really, it’s insane.So that encouragement I had from her was really intense. She was like, ‘Magic? You want to learn it? Come on let’s look for a magician and learn magic!’ And there was actually this magician who came home who would teach me magic for a certain time! So yeah I wanted to become a magician, a scientist, a philosopher and a writer. All of that was encouraged right from the age of 6. So if I wanted to write, she would take me to a play, and I would ask her, ‘can I write something like that?’ And she would say, ‘Of course you can.’ I remember plagiarizing one Anoop Jalota song and taking the structure of an Akbar Birbal story, meshing the two and writing my first play when I was 6 years old. So I took the song, the inferences from the song, whose lyrics by the way I was blown over by! It went like this, kaajal se kaali kalank aur paap bhoomi se bhaari. And this idea that you can compare these physical things with abstract properties and you can have these comparisons where the abstract properties become more powerful than the physical vastness. I was so inspired by that idea. At that time I realized it was something, but I was too young to understand. In retrospect I look back and I am like, If I would hear a 6 year old say this I would be baffled! Like what the fuck just happened? (laughs) But it was natural to me then. It made perfect sense to me back then. So I made that play and my mum directed it for my school. She took all the kids together and directed the play for the class and everyone was like, ‘your mother must have written it…’
VI. Reza: So there wasn't any pressure to go and earn daily bread?
Anand: There was an expectation at some point. But as I said I started working at an early age. I started teaching graphic design to people. When I was 15 I did this 1 year course in Photoshop and Corel Draw. That was the hottest thing back then, and my mom kind of found a way to get me a huge discount and invest in my education/ So I had this notion that, ‘fuck, okay now money has been spent and I should do something to get it back.’So I did it when I was in the 10th and during that course I found a rich guy who wanted to invest. I was doing this as a side thing so he said, ‘why don’t we start a company together?’ So we started this company called Cicero’s graphics where I started teaching Photoshop. There I met the most amazing people in my life. I met Abhay Mehta, he is a whistleblower in the nineties. He was a scientist, a researcher at MIT and he turned to expose the whole power project Enron India. Then he wrote a book called Power Play and he has a website called altindia.net. If you recover the site at wayback.net and you see the documents, you will see all of it marked as TOP SECRET, TOP SECRET! So I got the opportunity to work with him at 16. I was also into web design so I got the opportunity to work in web design and make a whistle blowing website. One thing led to another and those things led to other things. But with filmmaking I thought I can be a whistle blower, a scientist, a magician, a writer, everything I wanted to be at the same time.
[Note to readers--At this point in the interview the filmmaker’s cat has climbed up a low-lying tree outside his office in Aaram Nagar Phase II and he couldn't care less about us. No meaningful conversation could continue as he screams at the top of his voice at pimply-faced assistants. Anand is already threatening the poor sobs with corporal punishment if they aren't able to get the tabby down. It would appear this curiosity extends to his cat.]
Words: Reza Noorani