Anand Gandhi’s Ship of Theseus is the closest we’ve gotten in a while to cinéma vérité. The close-up of an impaired cornea. A snatch of circumstance, that there’s no one back home in the Middle East to donate eyes. A voice-enabled computer. Cigarette butts on an ashtray balanced on a copy machine. Aliya (Aida Elkashef), a photographer and the owner of that eye, roams about a bazaar, climbs stairs, spends time with a Gujarati family, goes home. A gallery. An exhibition. An interview that reveals how Aliya lost her vision. Ambling on the road, she hears sounds and enters the backyard of a modest home – she takes pictures of ducks. At home, she mocks her boyfriend – Vinay (Faraz Khan) – when he describes the photograph to her, referring to the “gable” in the sloping roof of that modest home. She heads someplace in a taxi, hears an argument on the roadside, asks the driver to stop, and takes pictures of the sound that captivated her. She slices vegetables, listens to Vinay describe this image, rejects it, and gets into an argument – spectacularly written and enacted – that may be one of the points of this film.
Vinay dismisses Aliya’s rejection of the photograph, saying that you don’t have to be conscious about your art, you can be intuitive. This, of course, isn’t just a statement about photography but about all art, including cinema, and the suspicion that Gandhi is plumbing his feelings, his experiences, his doubts, is deepened when this question comes up: Is Aliya’s work being celebrated because it’s intrinsically good, or because she’s blind? Or, to extrapolate this to Gandhi, are we celebrating Ship of Theseus, the film, or the fact that something like this got made in the first place in our cultural climate? In the second story – the film is a triptych – a monk named Maitreya (Neeraj Kabi) says, “We are all blind men trying to perceive the elephant.” Isn’t that the philosophy that drives the art-film audience? And talking about a poster that protests animal killing, a cause to which he is much committed, Maitreya suggests that they cut down on sentimentality and focus on people’s reason. Is that Gandhi talking about what needs to be done in Indian filmmaking? He even seems to anticipate reactions from a section of the audience, when a youngster labels Maitreya’s ramblings as “intellectual masturbation.”
The latter phrase certainly describes some of Ship of Theseus, particularly that title, that clanging proclamation of deep significance. It’s easily the worst thing about the film, and one can only hope that filmmakers, henceforth, will not feel compelled to impress on us the weight of their accomplishment by reducing their films to Grecian metaphors. I, for one, have no wish to see The Sword of Damocles (the thriller with imminent danger at every turn), Scylla and Charybdis (the love triangle where our hero falls for the daughters of rival gangsters), or The Augean Stables (aka the inevitable remake of Inquilaab). When Krzysztof Kieślowski could sum up the human condition with just the names of colours, and when Ingmar Bergman, that most solipsistic of storytellers, could condense a lifetime of frustration with the Big Guy up there into, simply, The Silence, there’s something profoundly annoying with a title that needs to be explained at the beginning of the film, like a sacred key handed to us so we can unlock the ensuing mysteries.
Then again, who can fault the overreaching of a filmmaker who got his start with saas-bahu soaps? That title may well be a grenade tossed on his past – though seeing Ship of Theseus, it’s hard to believe he had that past in the first place. This is a genuinely challenging film, a genuinely rewarding film – not least because it makes us question the nature of film itself. The title refers to the paradox that questions whether an object that has had its components replaced remains the same object, but the bigger paradox may be this: Is it still cinéma vérité – whose techniques are geared towards observing, being a fly on the wall – if you’re staging events through a meticulously scripted narrative, whose off-handedness only seems unscripted? Gandhi achieves an exquisite balance between a teeming external world (Alia being taken aback, at an intersection, by Mumbai’s swarms of people and traffic) and the quiet interiors of life (Maitreya eating an orange, carefully depositing pips into the rind), but it’s impossible not to wonder, as we always do in a certain kind of film, how much detail is too much detail. How many tracking shots of Maitreya’s purposeful strides do we really need to sit through?
The three segments transpose the titular paradox to human beings who need (or have undergone) organ replacements – an eye, a liver, a kidney – and the resulting transformations, both external (in the case of Alia and Maitreya) and internal (in the case of a stockbroker named Navin, whose story forms the third episode), are best brought out in Alia’s story. After surgery, she comes home and finally sees her work. She finally sees those pictures of ducks, that home with the “gable,” the men arguing by the roadside, and we sense her confusion without a word being said. Having had a “component” replaced, is she still the same person? The shot that closes her story is quietly epiphanic. As she sits on a makeshift bridge, crippled by indecision (and perhaps more of a “cripple” than she was earlier), Gandhi mounts her picturesque surroundings – a gushing river beneath her feet, snowy mountains in the distance – on a frame. We get closure, even if she doesn’t.
The subject is heavy, but Gandhi’s treatment (except in the second segment) is surprisingly light – it’s as if all the ponderousness went into that title and the film, therefore, was freed from having to keep a straight face all the time. Some moments make you laugh out loud, like the one about a beleaguered labourer who, first, just wants his kidney back – it was stolen when he was admitted for an unrelated surgery – but changes his mind when he receives a financial windfall. And when a suffering Maitreya is asked if the soul exists, he says curtly, “Pata nahin,” that he doesn’t know. But his story, which follows Alia’s, is a comedown. (The paradox, here, rises from the monk’s dilemma: if he is to live, he needs medication that’s obviously been tested on animals.) A predominantly visual film now turns verbal, with a series of compelling (and entertaining) philosophical arguments between the monk and a young lawyer named – cough, cough – Charvaka (Vinay Shukla), and I could never shake off the feelings that I was listening to a series of missives from the director’s brain, which seems to have regressed to flashbacks from the college days, when the question of whether or not it’s a worm’s destiny to be crushed could sustain several rounds of rum. (This worm, incidentally, makes an appearance in Alia’s story as well – but if a worm has its narrative purpose refashioned, is it still the same worm?) The actors, here as elsewhere, are wonderful, but they never convince us that they aren’t mouthpieces for someone else’s ideology. When Woody Allen, playing a part in one of his heavier films, stammers through existential questions, we sense the character – here, we sense the director.
The wordless portions work far better, like the shot by of Maitreya by the sea, staring into the vast unknown. (A shot of that worm being surrounded by hustling shoe-clad feet is another beauty.) Gandhi finds his footing again in the third segment, with superbly staged silent comedy, most notably during a search for someone’s house which seems to be in the midst of a labyrinth, as real as it is metaphorical, mirroring this film’s questions which loop back on themselves. (This time, too, there’s a central argument, between Navin and his activist grandmother, that provides a bit of perspective.) The last shot is a gem. We don’t see it coming, but when it does, it seems inevitable. A film sprung from the idea of organ donation – someone dies, another person lives; it’s, in a sense, a rebirth – closes with images of a womb-like cave. What would Ship of Theseus have been if Gandhi had trusted his visuals more? But then, he probably wouldn’t be the same filmmaker.
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