Saturday, July 27, 2013


Release date:
July 19, 2013
Anand Gandhi


Aida El-Kashef, Neeraj Kabi, Sohum Shah, Faraz Khan, Vinay Shukla, Sameer Khurana, Amba Sanyal, Rupesh Tillu, Mats Qvistrom   
English, Hindi

What’s astounding about writer-director Anand Gandhi’s debut feature is how simple and basic it is. Don’t be misled by the title into assuming that this is an esoteric film. It's not. That a story with such profound philosophical underpinnings could lead to a film so simple, so small, so unpretentious, so sweet and yet... so endearing, so entertaining, so humorous and so intriguing would be inconceivable to most. But it is… all this.

At a skeletal level, Ship of Theseus brings together three disparate stories. A celebrated photographer in Mumbai gets a corneal transplant to cure her blindness, and finds herself dissatisfied with her work once her sight returns. Elsewhere, a monk of a not-completely-specified religion is fighting a court case against cruel methods of animal testing in the pharmaceutical and cosmetics industries. When he is diagnosed with a fatal illness, he must choose between his principles and the very people he is battling. In another corner of the city, a seemingly self-serving young stockbroker hears of a kidney transplant scandal soon after he himself has received a new kidney. This leads him to take up cudgels on behalf of a poor man whose organ was stolen by racketeers, a fight for which he travels all the way to Sweden.

The story of the lenswoman Aliya (played by the talented Egyptian actress-filmmaker Aida El-Kashef) is perhaps the most literal and direct exploration of the film’s title. The Paradox of The Ship of Theseus refers to questions of identity examined by world philosophers for centuries that can be reduced in barest terms to this: if an object has had every single one of its components replaced, does it remain the same object? The root of the question comes from the ship sailed by the mythical Greek warrior Theseus, preserved by Athenians for centuries by replacing parts that decayed over time. The much-derided 1999 Val Kilmer-Mira Sorvino-starrer At First Sight had visited Aliya’s dilemma, though differently, via the real-life story of a blind man who could not cope with vision once it was restored to him through surgery. That film was panned by critics at the time, but should nonetheless not be discarded since it raises vital issues about perception and seeing. Aliya’s track in Ship of Theseus is much less about practical concerns relating to the restoration of sight though, and far more about how it impacts her instinctive art.

From Aliya to Maitreya the monk (Neeraj Kabi) and the unlikely activist Navin (Sohum Shah), the stories seem to get progressively more satisfying, until you realise that they’re designed to appear that way before they culminate in a completely unexpected and deeply moving climax. The brilliance of the acting and Arushi Nayar’s casting lies in the fact that the leads and the supporting players all come across as people who walked straight out of real life and into this film. Theatre actor Neeraj Kabi’s physical transformation to portray Maitreya’s decline is remarkable as is the conviction with which he plays a monk who is not the distant creature we assume all religious folk would be. Indian films tend to portray priests, nuns and monks as unreal people on pedestals, living away from the laity. While this is no doubt often the case, it is also true that there are Maitreyas aplenty in this world, which is why his conversations with his feisty, cynical and affectionate young lawyer Charvaka (Vinay Shukla) are so endearing. The pick of the principal cast for me though is Sohum Shah – the film’s handsome co-producer – who effortlessly portrays Navin of the gentle façade, camouflaging a man of grit far removed from his grandmother’s perception of him. In fact, it strikes you that we are a nation of truly good-looking people when Ship of Theseus – so many worlds away from the country’s mainstream commercial cinema – casually throws up a Sohum and a Rupesh Tillu (in the small role of Navin’s sweet-faced little friend in Sweden) and a Faraz Khan (who plays Aliya’s very attractive partner Vinay). Now onward to more serious matters…

Ship of Theseus has a quiet feel to it – in part due to its clever placement of music and the use of silences between lively conversations, but largely due to the magnificent starkness of DoP Pankaj Kumar’s work. That the Swedish and Indian countryside would look lovely through a cameraperson’s lens is no surprise. Kumar however makes even grimy, grubby, over-crowded Mumbai a canvas of artistic merit, filled with energy and warmth and, in one particular scene in the narrow bylanes of the city’s poorer quarters, poignance laced with humour.

Anand Gandhi’s screenplay is derived from a story co-written with Khushboo Ranka and Pankaj Kumar. That he is a master with the pen and the directorial baton is evident from his eloquent debut. Ship of Theseus is rich with relationships, not the least of them being the relationship with the self... Aliya alone in a room poring over her photographs once she can “see”… Vinay’s struggle to help her without being patronising… Charvaka and Maitreya cracking PJs with each other… An elderly Swedish gentleman wrestling with his conscience… There is no moralising here, but each of these individuals compels us to talk to ourselves about our notions of life and existence. What specifically are the questions raised by Ship of Theseus, did you ask? Well, that’s the point. It depends on who’s watching. Go find out for yourself.

Rating (out of five): ****1/2

CBFC Rating (India):
Running time:
140 minutes

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