Ship of Theseus reminded me of Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski’s masterpiece, The Decalogue, each episode of which dealt with one of the ten commandments from a moral perspective and brought it into everyday life. Similarly, this film too delved into the moral conflicts faced by the characters, which relate to the way we lead our lives. The beauty of both films is that they manage to incite these questions without becoming self-righteous or didactic, and yet remain accessible in the way the subject is presented.
Watching Ship of Theseus was an intensely personal experience. It resonated with me at so many levels that I was unable to articulate initially. It says something about the movie that it needed to be mulled over for a few days before I could come up with a coherent response. Friends who watched the movie have pointed out the flaws…. It was too slow-paced in parts, editing could have been crisper, some stories felt contrived, etc. I agree with all those assessments. But those assessments in a way reflect the expectations we have from cinema as entertainment in the modern age. We find ourselves fidgeting if the camera lingers for a few seconds longer than it should on a subject, we watch the mainstream Bollywood fare without batting an eyelid, but in such non-mainstream movies we are unwilling to tolerate the slightest suspension of disbelief. In this case, I was willing to overlook the flaws as they did not detract from the film’s powerful message.
The first story in the film deals with a blind photographer who relies on her senses of touch and hearing (and assistance from a supportive boyfriend) to create amazing images but is bothered by the question of whether she is being appreciated on the strength of her talent or because of her handicap. A long-awaited cornea transplant comes through, but it upsets the delicate balance she has maintained so far with her environment. In the process of gaining ‘sight’, she loses her intuitive ‘vision’. This story is inward looking compared to the other two, and while it features a fantastic performance by Egyptian actress Aida El-Kashef, in my opinion it was somewhat tangential to the central theme of the film as an exploration of moral dilemmas in the modern world, except in the last scene where the photographer seems finally ready to embrace and engage with the world, as opposed to simply documenting it on camera as an outsider.
The second story is perhaps the most powerful, as several reviews have already pointed out. There are many aspects brought out so beautifully in this story that it could have been made into a full length feature on its own and expanded further. The monk Maitreya, while driven by his beliefs, comes across as an immensely likeable and non-preachy character, one who is pragmatic as well as humorous in his outlook. The main theme is of course the abhorrence of violence in any form – from being vegan to opposing animal testing by pharmaceutical companies. But there are so many secondary sub-texts in this rich and layered story.
All of us in the modern world lead lives that are often at great variance with the beliefs we hold, and sometimes we are not even aware of it. We worry about global warming, yet we don’t think twice about taking flights or taking the car out for an unnecessary trip. We want others to reduce their carbon emissions, but are unwilling to compromise anything in our own lives. We complain about traffic in our cities, yet we drive long distances to work in single occupant vehicles. We want our cities to be clean, yet we throw out our own garbage which often ends up in landfills in the countryside. The list is endless.
Many a times we do not connect the dots, we do not see the big picture of how our daily actions relate to the bigger issue, we do not realize that we are part of the problem, and unless we change that, the problem will never go away. Yet there are many people who constantly strive to bridge this divide between what they believe and how they lead their lives. Take this idea to an extreme and you have the monk Maitreya, leading his life unflinchingly in accordance with his beliefs, to the extent of wanting to give up his life rather than compromise on them. In the end he too must compromise, but not without an intense battle with himself.
The young lawyer (representing Charvaka or hedonism) provides the counterpoint to the monk’s beliefs, and the arguments between the two exemplify the conflicts each of us face in this daily battle between our beliefs and our actions. In the modern world, it is impossible for us to live like Maitreya, and compromise we must. We rationalise our choices, telling ourselves (as the disciple tells Maitreya) – what does an individual matter in the larger scheme of things – the same argument many of us use to justify our own inaction. What does it matter if I segregate my waste when my neighbour is not, if I conserve water while the community as a whole uses it wastefully. We forget the whole is the sum of its parts, and our daily actions have a deep consequence.
Neeraj Kabi is utterly convincing as Maitreyi, delivering loaded dialogues with a twinkle in his eye. The sparkling conversation between the monk and his disciple is certainly one of the high points of the story. I also enjoyed the subtle nuances like Maitreya looking distinctly uncomfortable when his fellow monk exhorts the audience to make good their promise of donations to the cause. But the lasting image from this story for me was the visual of the group of monks walking through a surreal landscape surrounded by giant windmills and electricity transmission towers. The scene is slow and languid, giving one ample time to reflect on the fast-paced dialogue between the monk and the disciple that took place in the previous scene. The monks reach their destination, a remote monastery, and spread out their meagre piece of cloth to lie down for a rest, leaving the viewer with the question – how much or how little do we really need for a meaningful life?
While the first two stories feature somewhat larger-than-life characters doing extraordinary things, the third, in contrast, is about an ordinary, run-of-the-mill character. Sohum Shah plays a stock-broker who, according to his grandmother, chooses to live in his own money-centric universe, giving back nothing of value to society as a whole. The grandmother’s exhortation to engage with society is one that many of an earlier generation might relate to, while lamenting the rampant materialism and consumerism in the young working class. The stock-broker lashes back at this harsh assessment of his character, and points out that despite all her talk, she hasn’t managed to achieve much by way of her so-called activism either.
A chance encounter leads him to step outside his comfort zone to investigate a kidney-stealing racket, which he follows halfway across the globe to seek justice for the victim, in a somewhat far-fetched and contrived scenario. Some twists and turns later, he is back at his grandmother’s bedside, which leads to the sub-text of this particular story – the conviction that every individual action does matter, no matter how seemingly insignificant the outcome. The world is a better place because you tried to engage with it, instead of looking away. The message is one of hope, of taking responsibility for one’s actions.
The three stories come together in the end, in a somewhat predictable manner. However, this is much more than a film about organ donation. The conundrum implicit in the title is perhaps also not relevant or important. The stories loosely tie in to the so-called Theseus Paradox, but I personally choose to view the Ship as this living, breathing planet we call home, encompassing something larger than the sum of its parts but suffering the consequences of the actions of each of its myriad units. Perhaps you might view it differently. But this, then, is the hallmark of truly great cinema – to make the viewers reflect and interpret the film in their own way, coloured by their personal experiences. Anand Gandhi has accomplished that beautifully.
PS: The movie has been made available for free legal download for Indian viewers! It can be downloaded here: http://vimeo.com/84744058