The Ship of Theseus is a painstakingly dialectical observation of the transient human forms journeying in the sphere of reality. It examines the paradoxes in arguments about human beliefs, values and ideologies, exploring through the cave of space and time to find answers in the arcane light of truth. The film is deep, sometimes dense enough to put you into a storm of confusion, yet its mysterious powers to stimulate your mind into questioning the basis of existence is nevertheless a remarkable feat for writer-director Anand Gandhi. It’s all the more astonishing to know that Ship of Theseus is Gandhi’s debut feature film, and wait it you hear the biggest shocker – this work comes from the same man who began the incredibly contrived ‘evil mother-in-law vs. saintly daughter-in-law’ tradition in Indian television soaps such as ‘Kyuunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi (Because the mother-in-law was once a daughter-in-law herself)’ and ‘Kahaani Ghar Ghar Kii (Story of Every Home)’ more than a decade ago.
This man has completed his journey, his eight-year pilgrimage at last (he conceived his idea in 2005, after making two short films ‘Right Here Right Now’ in 2003 and ‘Continuum’ in 2005) and he has found some answers, which he brings to the world in the form of Ship of Theseus. His search is probably still on, yet this film is as good as it gets.
Deconstructing the mighty body of Ship of Theseus to its bare bones would require considerable expertise (missing Mr. Ebert) and hence pardon me if my attempt falls short. There are three characters embarking on three different journeys, catalyzed by the coaxial theme of organ transplantation. The transplantation acts as the physical manifestation of the Plutarchian paradox, which questions that ‘if all the parts of a ship are replaced plank by plank and the same were used to build a new ship, then would the new ship remain the same ship as before?’.
Aliya Kamal, a visually impaired photographer whose perception of beauty and art is developed through touch and sounds in the absence of images, seeks for perfection in her pictures and often rejects photos her boyfriend finds great, leading to arguments between the couple. Her sixth sense of using sound (plus her boyfriend and the always reliable editing software) as her guide to capture delightful visual moments is threatened by her decision to go ahead with a cornea transplant to restore her eyesight. She shall realize that there’s no such thing as a ‘swan cart’, an image she had designed inside her head for God knows what.
Maitreya, the second character, is an English-speaking erudite (and atheist) monk who fights for noble causes such prevention of animal cruelty during cosmetic and medicinal testing. He journeys on foot to fast track court (which is consistently sluggish) and lets his Parsi lawyer fight on his behalf (the defense lawyer meanwhile rubbishes the case as ‘a sentimental petition’, and door to door begging for alms. When his protégé Chavarka notices him saving a centipede from being squashed under somebody’s foot and letting it go on top of a leaf, he jokes that ‘the centipede may have been trying to commit suicide and now being saved, would have find his path to nirvana’; there is constant friendly arguments between the two revolving generally around the idea of moksha or enlightenment.
Soon, it is found that Maitreya has liver cirrhosis and the ailing monk, whose staunch refusal to touch any object made at the expense of torturing animals, refuses to undergo a transplant which would also involve taking dozens of such pills. He withdraws into seclusion, and ends up punishing his own body; for someone who believes so much in karma (what goes around comes around), God knows what sin did the saint commit to suffer so much pain.
Navin, the third character, is a money-minded stockbroker who busies himself in the world of shares and stocks even when he is admitted to the hospital. Once released, he goes home where his art-loving grandmother (whom he calls ‘ajji’, which means grandmother in Marathi) scolds him for showing little interest in art and social matters. When she is admitted to the hospital after fracturing her leg, she arranges a Rajasthani musician to sing folk tunes for her and her friends inside the hospital; Navin meanwhile fidgets around, trying to find a way to escape. The two have an argument later, where Navin accuses her of being intolerant towards his attitude of living, which is to luxuriate in material comfort and yet have basic human compassion. When he learns that a poor man’s kidney was stolen a day before he got his own kidney, he fears he might have the man’s kidney and searches for the true owner. God knows what drives him all the way to Stockholm in search of the new owner.
Anand Gandhi captains his Titanic Ship along its course, and it remains totally unhampered by any stupid icebergs. The easy way to look at this movie is that it’s about organ donation, but on closer look, you’ll see the theme of ‘reconfiguration of human psyche by external forces’ shining through. The film’s structure is so massive, it’s themes so multitudinous, that you don’t feel sure at times whether you are moving in the direction the film intends you to move. My advice for those who can’t understand everything would be to leave it to God and just understand what’s easier for your mind to comprehend. Subsequent viewings will reveal further answers.
The cinematography by Pankaj Kumar is extremely fluid, and Gandhi allows the camera to remain static over long periods of time. That’s where our actors, Aida El-Kashef, Neeraj Kabi and Sohum Shah (also the producer), do all the excellent visual communication, bringing an emotional intensity which gives these philosophical concepts a simpler, human form of expression. There’s some powerful imagery here that draws our focus to the grand scheme of things. We begin to question ourselves then, wondering “God knows why… ?”. Our journey begins.