Ship of Theseus director Anand Gandhi: My pandemic script was called 2020

Updated: Jul 12, 2020, 07:52 IST | Aastha Atray Banan | Mumbai

Ship of Theseus director Anand Gandhi talks of Emergence, his work-in-progress piece since 2015, which he is eerily seeing play out in reality

Anand Gandhi
Anand Gandhi

Anand Gandhi has been thinking about "a virus" for as long as he has been making movies. A concrete thought made an appearance in The Ship of Theseus, his 2012 critically acclaimed film, where he questioned the idea of the alien microbes living in our body, and again in Tumbbad, 2018, a film he set in 1918, the year that the Spanish Flu struck India. "The genre of horror, especially zombie stories, have often been used to tell stories of the pandemic. In the US, these movies are backed by the Centre of Disease Control," he reveals.

Gandhi is also an innovator, systems researcher and co-creator of ElseVR, India's first virtual reality (VR) platform. He is also the founder/CEO of the Mumbai-based new media studio and systems think tank Memesys Culture Lab. It's even more reason to discuss viruses and pandemics now given the Coronavirus outbreak that the world is struggling with. Interestingly, since as early as 2015, Gandhi has been working on Emergence, a film surrounding a virus. The story follows four scientists, as they race against time to fight a pandemic that's threatening to destroy the world.

When we probe the genesis of Emergence, Gandhi says it started with him asking the "Who am I, where do I come from and what I am supposed to do?" questions. "It's the stuff children ask, and philosophers don't answer. I looked for answers in spirituality and history. Then, later, as the questions became more comprehensive, I started looking into evolutionary biology and cognitive sciences. All my previous movies have had hints of the question, what is human identity? We are not monolithic entities, we live in a ecosystem. Not just around us, but inside us. Inside us, there are trillions of bacteria that don't share our genome."

Still from Tumbadd (2018)
Still from Tummbad

"So, we are a colony of organisms. For example, the bacteria in our gut affects our mood—people who have bad gut health tend to suffer from stress and anxiety issues."

This triggered conversations and Gandhi began thinking about a movie about a virus that changes the way humans behave.

When he started writing Emergence, he says he gave it the working title, 2020. Something he now calls prophetic. He began to seek out and have conversations with public healthcare specialists from around the world. "The more I dug, and the more I developed the story [of Emergence], the more I realised that this was an eventuality. When it did happen, my reaction was paranoia. But we have to live with it. Pandemics are like the stars in the night sky. They started their life a long time go, but have begun to reveal themselves now."

The fact that the Coronavirus pandemic caught up with Gandhi is not reason for him to despair. He is working on the movie even now as you read this, adapting it to the current circumstances. It helps that now, he can get straight to the crux of the story, without handholding the audience on the concept. "It functions as a story of caution, but also as one that celebrates resilience. But the quest is the same as before—to answer the question, what is human identity?"

Still from Ship Of Theseus (2012)
Still from Ship Of Theseus (2012)

Gandhi believes that although the virus is forcing us to change, many are not going to, since human behaviour is hard wired. "These emotions have been carried over for centuries. So, there will still be those who believe that the earth is flat and that a vaccine is going against the will of God. The virus is pretty new that way," he says, adding that he does think a policy change will come about, though. "It's a punctuation event in our lifetime—so big that people will die. We need to get the death rates down and and get to a vaccine soon. We have to learn how to live with the virus, and know that this [large scale spread] could recur again."

He admits that he is a year too late, but he is also happy that what he spent time studying about and pontificating on, wasn't off the mark. "That's why, it matters."

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