The review was written during the Mumbai International Film Festival 2012.
THE ESSENTIAL TRUTH
Through an aquamarine-tinted glimpse of an unseen Mumbai that is delectably photographed and appears to be thriving under the dust and the mayhem, and a seamless narrative that masterfully ties together three separate stories with the same soul, right through to the film’s stunning denouement, first-time director Anand Gandhi’s Ship of Theseus provides us with evocative drama that is unhurried in pace but rich in emotional cadences—a slow trickle headed irrevocably towards a postscript that is flush with meaning.
A stirring potrayal by Aida Al-Kashef. PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY TIFF
The central paradox on which Ship of Theseus hinges its narrative is derived from Plutarch’s query—whether a ship restored by replacing all its planks remained the same ship. Inversing it somewhat, Mr Gandhi applies the premise to the realm of organ donation, tracing a reverse genealogy of organs from a single man, recently deceased, which have been used to replenish other lives. Aida Al-Kashef, an Egyptian filmmaker in her first acting role, plays a photographer, startlingly expressive in her work when blind, but struggling with a perceived loss of spontaneity even as her restored eyesight allows her more tangible control over her craft. Neeraj Kabi is a monk who revels in his intransigence, refusing treatment for liver cirrhosis, because most pharmaceutical companies, whose drugs could cure him, have a track record of flagrant animal abuse, to which he objects stringently. Sohum Shah, also the producer of the film, is a stock-broker recently in receipt of a kidney transplant, who feels compelled to track down a laborer’s stolen kidney that he initially believed to be his own.
A constellation of relationships are drawn into the lives of the three protagonists, but those who people them seem like ciphers—stand-ins for the film’s leanings. The broker is saddled with a quasi-liberal grandmother, whose admonishings go a long way in awakening his conscience, numbed as she deems it to be by the bullish world of stocks and bonds he is constantly engaged with. The monk has nurtured a posse of doctors and lawyers, all of whom spell out the preoccupations of the tale in a far too literal manner, championing the monk’s return to the fold of allopathic treatment, from a self-imposed fast unto death. The photographer is blind to the trappings of intimacy hand-crafted for her in the person of a devoted husband who is a stilted sounding board perhaps, but not in a real life flesh-and-blood sense, but in a way that is utilitarian to the segment’s theme. Maybe the film would have been better served if the director had covered his tracks, but in the end, it is all very well, because the contrivances creates the space for all the principal players to soar, to examine and to resolve the eternal dilemma that brings their stories together. The tools to a revelation, or the implements that will allow the ultimate self-discovery are laid out clearly, but there is still an impasse that must be conquered and in those journeys, the film comes majestically into its own.
Ms Al-Kashef’s acting technique is disarmingly accurate as she creates a woman who is temperamental yet unassuming, angsty yet placid, and sets the wheel into motion. It dawdles awhile on the gentle shoulders of Mr Kabi, who is an actor with an halo firmly in place, allowing his aura to pull his character through, alongside a disquietingly physical embodiment of his body’s degeneration. Mr Shah’s performance is revelatory, as his upcountry gaucheness gives way to a depth of feeling that is truly moving. His is the character most audiences will invest in quite readily. In these three affirmative portrayals, the central conceit of Ship of Theseus, in danger of coming across as hollow or convenient, achieves the ring of truth. The human body is an immutable reservoir of its humanity. The benevolence that binds these people together survives—the ship remains the same. There are visual records from the deceased man’s life that attest to this ongoing exploration leaving us with a sense of something very simple, very basic, but also very powerful.
A lacerating performance by Neeraj Kabi. PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY TIFF
There is some irony in the manner the film has managed to create a new cinematic idiom in a country shorn of motion-picture innovation. Just before MAMI’s first screening of Ship of Theseus at the NCPA, in the sprawling 1200-seat (and jam-packed) Bhabha Theatre, there was a panel discussion at a side venue, in which Zoya Akhtar, as uncomfortably mainstream an Indian filmmaker as you can get, spoke about how a crossover success can only be achieved if one pandered to the west, where sensibilities are markedly different from ours, partial as we are to song-and-dance and heightened melodrama. That is to say, make an Indian film that isn’t quite Indian (like Deepa Mehta’s voyeuristic Water, for instance). As if to upend that argument, Ship of Theseus is a film that remains resolutely faithful to its own ethos, without catering to a demographic, imagined or otherwise. It is, in every respect, a bonafide Indian film with a vision quite distinct from the sometimes exotic and reductive India-gazing indulged in by so many diasporic filmmakers (which is still a valid perspective in its own right, but clearly caters to the west, as Ms Akhtar pointed out). This film is borne of a sensibility that is homegrown and local, if a tad new-age and urbane. Yes, it throws out the clichés and doesn’t kowtow to accepted conventions in Indian filmmaking, but its cinematic language, nascent and visceral, is still essentially Indian.
Given the kudos it has garnered in all the festivals at which it has screened, and having been picked up by an international distribution label, Fortissimo Films (whose roster also includes Ashim Ahluwalia’s spaced-out Miss Lovely), the film could prove to be that elusive worldwide success story. That may show, that in the end, universal acceptance isn't about number-crunching or a lack of marketing ideas or being book-ended by genre conventions, but about the quality of the cinema. Maybe the reason our films haven't been appreciated abroad, beyond the niché of curry boulevards and kitsch-scavengers, is because we live in an insular bubble in which the mediocrity mandated by box-office concerns still holds supreme, and there is little room for self-introspection. Those who challenge the status quo are immediately deemed outsiders. An unflinching dedication to excellence in one's craft comes at such a premium in our film culture, that even a film like Ship of Theseus, beautifully crafted but with its own warts and edges, becomes the harbinger of a new era when more likely, it could possibly be a flash in the pan for the kind of cinema it seeks to engender. Ultimately, its legacy remains, for the uncommon stories it has plucked out from the life experiences of common people, and for delivering to its audience the kind of cinema they’ve always been thirsting for. ✑
Anand Gandhi bends the rules in Ship of Theseus. PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY TIFF