Friday, August 2, 2013

Long note - updated

I have spoken, at length, about the reasons why I usually decide to develop one idea over another – I chew on a philosophical problem for a long time, keeping it in a mental register till I arrive at a narrative metaphor best suited for resolving it. When I am able to come up with a narrative idea that seems to be in continuum with a philosophical conundrum I have had, it simply “clicks”. If I find out even a moment or a scene I am considering to narrate having been already done in some other film, I immediately replace it with another solution. 

I have spoken in several interviews about the genesis of some of the ideas in Ship of Theseus. It will take more than a few hundred pages to talk about its entire etymology, so I won’t attempt that here. I will cursorily speak about the evolution of just one narrative strand.

In the year 2005, as Khushboo and I were making our featurette length short film Continuum, we had started developing a magical-realist, urbsurd and a plenitudinous world of a blind hockey player. There were several magical worlds and characters that surrounded her (like a jeannie, who has lost his memory, a covert activist of a hero, etc.). Like many Hungarian masters, we were aspiring to use sport as a laboratory human experiment. Only, in our case, this socio-political allegory was to trigger off a dialogue on (and marginally in favour of) social anarchism.

The character of our story played in hockey tournaments for the visually impaired, for a team that invariably always lost. The central conceit of the plot was to follow her through a vacation, carefully avoiding central action points, only to return to the field with her – this time winning game after game for her team. The audience is invited to solve this (rather easy to decipher) enigma. What happened on the 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. (One absurdly kitsch joke that Khushboo liked to crack about the character was in the form of a dialogue between her and her lover when they first meet. “Tumhari aankhen bahot khoobsurat hai.” “Thank you, par meri nahin hain.”)

A social phenomenon that we were attracted to was that of anonymous groups – complete strangers providing solace, understanding and advice to each other based on one common (often traumatic) experience (or malady). We made our protagonist, the blind hockey player, a participant in an anonymous group. But what could possibly be binding them? We had heard about alien abductee anonymous – fascinating, but obviously so. We thought of one thing that binds them all (won’t give spoilers here) and suddenly realized that this narrative idea is a great metaphor for micro-level (cell and bacteria) replacement problem we had wanted to resolve.

This clicked! As we progressed in the story, there were obvious places to go to, and we let ourselves go there – post-surgery readjustment issues. We thought we would play with the trope, and see if we can reinvent it somehow. As we delved further in our story, we increasingly found ourselves migrating further and further towards the anonymous group. We were suddenly curious about all the other members. Who were these people? What organs had they received? What were their post-surgery readjustment issues?

This had opened up a fascinating world for us to explore. We dropped the jeannie and the activist altogether. We knew that all our narratives now meet in the anonymous group. We wrote a funny scene - in one of their meetings, they decide to name themselves. This was the beginning of Ship of Theseus.

The two major plot points – sight restoration and post-surgery readjustment issues were already present in our story about the blind hockey player. Now the second part of this note, is a bullet – I will elaborate upon it later, as well –

I have spoken at length about how my DoP Pankaj Kumar urged me to look at the life and work of the celebrated Slowenian visually impaired photographer Evgen Bavcar, with the hope of diverting my attention from the character of the blind hockey player, to the world of blind photographers. I was reluctant initially at engaging with, what I felt, was a slightly "sensational irony", given the intensely oxymoronic nature of its central conceit. I also felt that there is a sense of a tokenist novelty here - while it's a surprisingly common identity - there are thousands of visually impaired artists in the world - the desire to capture the experience in an external visual "memory box" is clearly understandable. Having once decided to engage with it, we decided to dive as deep as we possibly could into it.

Once you have a blind protagonist in your film, how do you fight the cliché of the restored eyesight? I decided I won’t. So the challenge in front of me was to take up the work of Evgan Bavcar, go along with the tropes of sight restoration and post surgery conflict – use it as a narrative layer for all the questions I wanted to explore about art and the subjective experience of beauty.  

I have spoken about my references at length - about Daniel Kisch and Ben Underwood, the two visually impaired men with a highly evolved faculty of echolocation. I have spoken about the ideas of echolocation that I learnt from the work of evolutionary biologists (especially the chapter on echolocation in The Blind Watchmaker), and how I have tried trigger that dialogue through the film. I have spoken about the photorapher’s aspiration of condensification and the aspiration of all artists to achieve maximum content density per unit of art, and how that informs the work of the blind photographer in my film. I have spoken at length about the idea of accident vs intent, the intention of simulation and metaphor in photography (a deleted scene that was shown in an early trailer starts with a quote from Jean Baudrillard), and the possibility of arriving at an objective scale of measuring beauty, and its relation to the work of neuroaestheticists like V S Ramachandran and Semir Zeki. A small capsule of our research work with a Mumbai based blind photographer Mahesh Umrrania has been made available online.

For the work and the process of blind photographers, we drew heavily from Pete Eckert and the Sight Unseen collective of visually impaired photographers in California (the light-painting photographs that Aliya takes in the film are inspired from Eckert’s processes.)

And for those interested in finding more about the post-surgery readjustment problems, I recommend they have a look at my real original reference – the essay titled “To See or Not to See” by the neurologist Oliver Sacks in his book “An Anthropologist on Mars”.

Thank you, everyone, for the intense curiosity and the interest.