What could be more frightening than a visual capsule of mortality? Anand Gandhi’s Ship of Theseus is a frightening film. One of the three stories in the film is about a Jain monk who, for most of his life, has been crusading against pharmaceutical experiments that brutalize animals. He is battling a failing liver, and has vowed not to accept prescription pills or an organ transplant. We see him reach a moment when, foreseeing death, he asks for his mother. His body is lacerating and feeble, and his face, scrutinized closely by Gandhi and his cinematographer Pankaj Kumar, is rupturing with fear. His idealism is reeling and capsizing. He might also just ask for the doctor.
Already hugely feted by critics, Gandhi’s film has plenty of didacticism. He uses the screenplay as a vehicle for philosophical ideas and most of the scenes are arguments about the nature of the body, soul and extreme idealism. We see characters living, breathing, and also compulsively arguing with each other. Gandhi explains the Theseus paradox, a Greek myth, before the film begins: When all the parts of a ship are replaced by new parts, does it remain the ship it once was?
The director is almost trying to be a myth maker here, a put-off for lovers of the medium if he is not committed to meeting the challenges unique to the art form. Terrence Malick is the inventor and supreme practitioner of this subgenre. Despite the hyper-articulate philosophizing, Gandhi’s film is stirring because he is deeply committed to making a good, competent film. The camera moves with the pace of characters and the canvas—at a Mumbai street intersection it is frenetically mobile, the background sound a cacophony; on a journey of a group of monks across a road lined by windmills, it is quiet and languorous. Intimate scenes with only natural sounds in the background follow scenes of unexpected grandeur. The editing is crisp and the performances are terrific.
All the three lead characters are new to the big screen in India. Neeraj Kabi, a theatre actor, is a revelation as the monk. The dialogues are razor-sharp and lifelike, the reason why the pomposity of their ideological stances is acceptable, as are the settings—a sparse monastery, rain-lashed Mumbai roads, the undramatic proceedings of a high court, a balcony overlooking lit-up matchbox apartments josting each other. Gandhi, who has written the film, treats his characters with severity and affection, and the actors live up to the big task at hand.
The film’s three stories are united by the theme of organ donation. Aliya (Aida Elkashef) is an Egyptian artist in Mumbai for an eye transplant. She absorbs the city by taking photographs. A curious lawyer, Charwaka (Vinay Shukla), engages with Maitreya, the Jain monk in zealous pursuit of a world free of cruelty towards animals. Reminiscent of Mahatma Gandhi in his austerity and obstinately living an ideal, Maitreya is the film’s most memorable character, placed in an Aristotelian dialectic with the precocious young lawyer. Navin (Sohum Shah), a stockbroker who has, after having undergone a kidney transplant, gone to Stockholm looking for a man who has stolen someone’s kidney. In a stunning, emotionally profound climax, there is a screening of a documentary filmed inside an ancient cave of shimmering rock.
Ship of Theseus is a passionate and clever film, brimming with sharp and original interpretations of age-old philosophy.
American critic Pauline Kael described, in one of her essays, how taste for trash eventually inculcates taste for art. “One’s moviegoing tastes and habits change—I still like in movies what I always liked but now, for example, I really want documentaries. After all the years of stale-stupid acted-out stories, with less and less for me in them, I am desperate to know something, desperate for facts, for information, for faces of non-actors and for knowledge of how people live—for revelations, not for the little bits of show-business detail worked up for us by show-business minds who got them from the same movies we’re tired of.”
I feel ditto, perhaps one of the reasons I support Ship of Theseus with all my heart and am waiting for Gandhi’s second film.
Ship of Theseus releases in theatres on Friday.