The review was written during the Mumbai International Film Festival 2012.
CONTEMPLATIVE CINEMA AT ITS BEST
Simply put, the Ship of Theseus paradox raises the question of whether an object which has had all its component parts replaced, remains fundamentally the same object. A later corollary asks that if all the parts of the said ship were re-assembled to create another ship, would it be restored to its original self? In philosophy, this paradox is linked to the basic existential question––who we are––and how much we change over the course of a lifetime, including perhaps, the very essence of us.
Aida El-Kashef soaking in the sounds of Mumbai. PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY TIFF
Anand Gandhi’s debut feature film applies this paradox to create a work of rare philosophical depth and acute compassion towards the dilemmas of human existence, fraught with the burden of a thousand choices and awareness of the inherent inequities and injustice of modern society. The best of us, then, are liable to succumb, and yet, each of us has the potential for redemption.
The theatre of action is Mumbai (where else?) and the principals are drawn from varied backgrounds and circumstances. The first of the three stories woven together (if there is a connection between them, it only unfolds slowly, seamlessly) is about a blind Egyptian photographer, Aaliya (Aida El-Kashef) who uses her sharp intuition and some fancy gadgets that describe colours and objects in the frame, to make pictures without seeing with her eyes.
Aaliya is good and she knows it. But somewhere there’s also an awareness of the singularity of her situation, which evokes both fascination and skepticism. This is beautifully illustrated in two key scenes––when she’s interviewed by a journalist who wants to know why she chose to become a photographer despite her handicap, and another where she gets into a passionate argument with her Indian boyfriend about an accidental picture which he thinks is great and she wants to discard. Aaliya doesn’t want to relinquish any control over her art and being sighted isn’t reason enough to overrule her judgment.
In the second, and best-realised of the three stories, a Jain monk, Maitreya (Neeraj Kabi, in an outstanding performance), is fighting a court battle against animal testing of pharmaceutical and cosmetic products when he’s diagnosed with an illness that requires extensive treatment and possibly a transplant. His commitment to his cause doesn’t permit him to avail of this option and he decides to renounce the world and let his body wither away. A junior lawyer named Charvaka (Vinay Shukla), who admires him, argues relentlessly against his decision saying that individual actions are inconsequential in the larger scheme of things. “Every molecule in the universe is affected by our actions,” Maitreya retorts.
The motif of contemplation. PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY TIFF
Through this story Gandhi really takes on the weighty stuff of man’s relationship with his environment and the purpose of life while with the next, about a stockbroker, Navin (Sohum Shah), who has recently undergone a kidney transplant, he explores the question of ‘value’. Navin’s grandmother is a social worker whose obsession with ‘causes’ he finds futile and self-indulgent. And yet, against his better judgment, he’s changing…
Beautifully photographed, often on Mumbai’s crowded streets where Aaliya goes looking for her subjects, in dimly lit hospital rooms and corridors, courtrooms and the narrowest of by-lanes and passages through which some can barely pass but others live on a regular basis, Ship Of Theseus is also a poem on the city. More than once cinematographer Pankaj Kumar captures elements of the ‘ship’ we’re all on, specifically through an exquisite composition of monks in white sitting on a rock that resembles a hull looking out to the Bandra-Worli Sea Link. Another subliminal one has them walking through a maze of windmills creating a visual impression of the hands of time casting shadows on their bodies.
Few films provoke you to introspect and challenge your own convictions as Ship Of Theseus does. To think, Gandhi started his career as a writer of soaps like Kyunki Saans Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi! His transformation is stupefying, to say the least.