Thursday, July 11, 2013

Trio of life: about Anand Gandhi’s Ship of Theseus

[Did a shorter version of this for my DNA column]

A south Delhi multiplex is not the sort of place where you expect to linger after a film screening, listening to a discussion about (among other things) neuroscience, microbiology, extended phenotypes, and the nature of consciousness, morality and individual responsibility. Yet this is what happened after a recent PVR Saket preview of Anand Gandhi’s film Ship of Theseus, which releases in selected cities next week. Even the young writer-director seemed a little sheepish, as if aware that such conversations should ideally unfold at leisure, without the distraction of the hall management pointing at their watches to indicate that the (paying) viewers for another movie were waiting outside, rustling their popcorn sacks. But then, Ship of Theseus does lend itself to being discussed in terms of its big themes – which may be an injustice because it is also a splendidly constructed, visually fluid work, very assured for a debut feature, with some of the best ensemble acting I have seen in a while.

Personally I was in two minds about the post-screening talk. As a movie buff and journalist seeking background information, it was nice to hear from Gandhi and members of his unit, including Sohum Shah, who played one of the three main roles and took on the responsibility of producing the film when funds were scarce. Besides, the interaction itself was pleasant, with members of Delhi’s culturati – the painter Jatin Das, photographer Raghu Rai and veteran producer Suresh Jindal among them – warmly expressing their appreciation for the film (Rai couldn’t resist making a technical point about “apertures hanging” in certain shots) and relating personal anecdotes. Speaking as a viewer though, I would have preferred some time to let the experience sink in fully, to collect my feelings about the unusual images and sounds of the previous two-and-a-half hours.

The very title of this dream-like, occasionally slow-moving film comes from a well-known philosophical query (does an object that has had all its components replaced one by one remain the same object?), which means there was a measure of intellectual self-consciousness built into the project from the start. In the breadth of its ambition and in its desire to tackle big ideas about our physical and inner worlds, Ship of Theseus reminded me of Terrence Malick’s bloated, often spellbinding, sometimes incomprehensible Tree of Life. Unlike that film though, this one has a linear, easy-to-follow narrative. Or three: this is a triptych of stories about individuals struggling with bodily changes or emotional epiphany, or both.

In the first story a young, vision-impaired woman named Aliya (wonderfully played by the Egyptian filmmaker-activist Aida El-Kashef) takes photographs by listening to sounds and aiming her camera at them, using colour-identification devices and computer technology, and the aid of her boyfriend. An exhibition of the photos is enthusiastically received (is the acclaim for their actual quality or for the novelty of the venture?), but Aliya has a life-changing and art-changing moment when her sight is restored after a surgery, and the question arises: having gained something so vital, what might she have lost along the way? We see that she has become more conscious about what she is doing, and the film has a story about a frog and a centipede that suggests her predicament. (“How do you manage to walk on a hundred legs without ever stumbling?” the frog asks the centipede. The centipede, having never dwelled on such details of technique, now starts thinking about them – and promptly trips over himself.)

The second story begins with a long take of another centipede – this one isn’t stumbling, but it is in peril of being squashed by human feet until it is lifted on a piece of paper and set out of harm’s way. The monk who does this, Maitreya (Neeraj Kabi), is the story’s protagonist. “What if the insect’s karma was to get crushed?” a cocky young lawyer asks him, and their good-natured banter continues intermittently, even as they file a petition to improve the treatment of animals used for chemical testing by big corporations. But Maitreya’s ideals are put to a painfully severe test when he is diagnosed with liver cirrhosis and finds that those same heartless corporations make the medicines that can ease his suffering.

Much more hard-edged and worldly than the gentle monk is a young stockbroker named Navin (Sohum Shah), whose story rounds off the film. “Zindagi mein khushi chahiye, aur shaayad thodi si maanavta” (“All you need in life is happiness, and perhaps a bit of humanity”) is Navin's personal philosophy, but his conscience is strangely awakened when he hears about a poor man whose kidney was stolen, around the same time that Navin himself had a kidney transplant. Even after establishing that he wasn’t the recipient of the pilfered organ, he feels personal responsibility - the poor, voiceless man may have become for him what the centipede was for the monk - and traces the stolen kidney to Stockholm, leading to a blackly funny sequence where a harried middle-aged Swede tries to understand what this Indian man wants of him (and later weeps and crouches in prayer like a Bergman character trying to fathom the mysteries of existence).

Taken together, these stories ask how much an individual’s actions can affect the world, and what is the real measure of a human being anyway: are we agglomerations of body parts, autonomous entities or “colonies” made up of trillions of bacteria, separate from our environment or indistinguishable from it? And either way, where does consciousness and self-awareness fit in? Ship of Theseus has many such balls in the air. During the preview discussion, Gandhi admitted that he was eager to put all his enquiries and influences into this one film (perhaps a natural impulse for a creative person who doesn’t know what the future may hold beyond his first big project). But he was also aware that a film conceived in such lofty terms can become turgid. One of his challenges as a writer, he said, was to make the dialogue sound as natural and organic as possible, “as if it really was flowing from the characters”, rather than the characters being mouthpieces for an ideology. “As an author, I was tempted to intrude on the characters’ space. I had to guard against that.” No wonder then that the auditioning process for the film had to be spread out over many weeks, and became an exercise in bonding and forming relationships. “I had to feel a strong connection with the actors who played even the smaller roles.” 

It certainly produced results: perhaps the most admirable thing about this film is how well it works at the level of intimate, worm’s-eye storytelling. There are a couple of static, over-expository passages – such as a courtroom scene with lawyers and judges speaking like philosophers – where I felt my attention wandering. But lightness of touch is the more dominant mode, and there isn’t a false note in any of the main performances. I particularly liked the splashes of unexpected humour in the third story, including a surreal but plausible scene where Navin walks around decrepit buildings in a poor neighbourhood, trudging up seemingly endless stairs and squeezing through narrow alleys, to find the house of the man whose kidney was stolen (it is almost as if the stockbroker were being forced to leave the material world behind, to negotiate a mountain and discover his inner hermit). Another long, unbroken tracking shot has Maitreya and his friend walking together along a road, passing walls with graffiti on them, exchanging corny jokes such as the one about Buddhists being allowed to send emails with no attachments – but even as the conversation becomes more intense as it goes along, and the pace of their walking appears to quicken, the smiles never leave the two men’s faces. The real, human tone of this film can be found in scenes like the one where we see the ravages of physical illness corroding even the most evolved mind (“Pata nahin,” says the illness-wracked monk to a supplicant who asks him if the soul exists) and where a plaintive request like “Please take care of yourself” then becomes more direct and pertinent than all the self-conscious soul-searching in the world.

At the same time, many diverse things are happening here at a formal level; this isn’t one of those “arty” movies that are content to let the dialogue do all the work. The images and the cutting (or lack of cutting) constantly reveal something of the inner lives of these characters. One scary scene on a busy road – with sound design and quick cuts used very effectively – gives us an immediate sense of Aliya’s disoriented state, her inability to deal with a complex sensory world where sounds and sights operate together (or in opposition). In another extended scene, she argues with her boyfriend and the handheld camera moves back and forth between them, the movement, dialogue and acting combining artfully to let us appreciate both sides of the argument. There are long takes that follow the norms of Cinema Verite (as in a lengthy shot in a hospital room where Navin washes his grandmother’s bedpan, then helps her pee) but there are also visually showy sequences like the one in which a group of monks walk through a landscape dotted with windmills. “Ideas and enquiries” may have been the starting point for this film, but there is palpable cinematic ambition too, and much of it is achieved through Pankaj Kumar’s outstanding photography.

Ultimately (no spoiler here) the three stories – which have no visual breaks or markers to separate one from the next – smoothly converge in a scene where the main characters find themselves in the same room. But such is the context of this meeting that we are also led to wonder about the stories of the other people in that room, the ones we haven’t been shown. That open-endedness – the sense that what we have seen in these two hours is just a fragment of an immeasurably large and interconnected picture – is one of the things that make Ship of Theseus such a rewarding film despite its occasional verbosity. It is well worth watching on the big screen, so do look out for it.

P.S. (Cough cough) Highly amused to see the "genre" classification for Ship of Theseus on this Wikipedia page. Take a look.


  1. The film sounds right up my street. Thanks for the absorbing review. Will definitely watch it.

  2. This film looks interesting, but I have my reservations regarding movies that wear their theme on their sleeve.I think a huge part of appreciation is the viewer\reader participation and musing about the film , filling in the gaps with our own imagination- but when the theme is handed to us in a didactic platter , then I think it can take away from the experience.

  3. I have my reservations regarding movies that wear their theme on their sleeve

    Rahul: well, so do I - and I don't think anyone rambles on about Elephant Art vs Termite Art as much as I do - but part of the point of this post was that for all the loftiness of its conception, this film did work for me at a more intimate level too.

  4. Jai,

    First of all, Thnx once again for such a terrific plug. Watched it last night.
    Without going into the criticism of the movie, I just want to highlight one thing that occurred to me, it goes as follows:

    While watching the movie, It seemed to me that movie could have very well been set in Mexico or Brazil, etc and I wouldnt be able to tell the difference. This thing fascinated me to no end, is there such a thing like a characteristic of an international movie that it has to be emotionally( or culturally?) uprooted from any geographical place, even though it may be set in one.
    The point I am trying to make is, I didnt feel like the movie was set in Mumbai. I knew it was set in Mumbai, but somehow director evaded that Mumbai( Indian) feel. It felt like the character were in some abstract space, and that space has some characteristics which may very well belong to any of similar places such as mentioned.
    What exactly is the thing that ties a cinematic experience to a proper geographical ( or cultural) place, I am not quite able to put my finger on...

    Was it due to the absurdist/abstract nature of the film, like if one shoots a Kafka's story.. it wouldnt ( shouldnt?) feel like Prague.

    I'd love your comments on it,

    PS: Although one good thing came out of Alia's story ( which I very well connected to) .. I have always been fascinated by visual look and feel.. it occurred to me that I can have some different experiences if I just put off my specs as long as I can .. so far its been very interesting.. !!

  5. Vaibhav: thanks for the comment. What you say is very perceptive and raises a question that I sometimes think about too. And I know Bombay-ites who have seen the film and remarked that it presents their city in a way they haven't quite experienced before.

    I'd have to see the film again to really think about it, but it did seem like the use of light in some of the outdoor sequences was subtly different. At the same time, if you look closely at the people, the cars and the signboards in scenes like the one where Aliya is disoriented in traffic after regaining her sight, or the long take of Maitreya and Charvaka walking,you do get the sense of it being an Indian setting.

  6. Anand Gandhi has often been accused of plagiarism. In his recent interview to a magazine he has cleared some air out.

  7. The last story (Stockbroker) is set in Delhi. The stockbroker's friend drives a car with a DL license plate & one of the scenes is in front of Tilak Nagar post office.