Everyone who has seen Ship of Theseus has loved the film. It’s won awards and praise by critics and filmmakers (even Karan Johar is reportedly a fan). And yet, it seems to be a given that Ship of Theseus will not be a box office success. Kiran Rao, who has “presented” the film, said that she didn’t rope in her husband, actor Aamir Khan, as “presenter” because “it would have been a problem for the film because a lot of people would have come to see the film because of Aamir and not liked the film,” she said in an interview. “It’s not a film that can take a wide audience. Everybody can’t walk in and watch this film because they are not prepared for this kind of cinema, and then they might be disappointed.”
Rao makes Ship of Theseus sound more like an examination than a film, but there is an important question nestled in her observation: what are you willing to make allowances for as an audience? Because when it comes to Indian cinema, whether it's Bollywood or non-mainstream or regional, you have to be ready to suspend something. When you pick a film to watch, you're actually deciding which of your sensibilities must be squashed for the next few hours.
The audience for Ship of Theseus must enter the auditorium with a different set of criteria than what decides if a Bollywood film is a hit or miss. You're expected to keep in mind that style can trump credibility, that this is director Anand Gandhi's first film, and the focus is upon the intriguing idea that inspired it rather than the set of events that make up the plot of Ship of Theseus.
Inspired by the Theseus paradox, which is helpfully provided at the start of the film, Ship of Theseus tells three stories one after another. The first stars a blind photographer. The hero of the second story is a (presumably Jain) monk. The last story is about a young man whose profession is intimately tied to meeting someone called Yamamoto and watching the movement of stocks on his laptop. The three characters have one trait in common — they've all had or need an organ transplant. Aaliya, the photographer, discovers sight when her corneas are replaced. Instead of making her a better photographer, being able to see overwhelms her and she's unable to focus on a subject. Maitreya, the monk, campaigns fiercely against the pharmaceutical industry's cruel practices of animal testing and then discovers he needs a liver transplant. Without it, he will die, but the transplant would mean taking medicines made by the companies he's attacked. Navin, who just can't get a meeting with Yamagoto, chances upon an organ trafficking racket when he realises he may have been given an illegally-procured kidney.
Against the backdrop of a bustling and cacophonous Mumbai — which has rarely looked as beautiful as it does in Ship of Theseus, courtesy Pankaj Kumar's superb cinematography — these three choose to put their lives on hold and do some soul-searching. In many ways, the frenetic pace of their thoughts and the internal tickings of their bodies are mirrored in the manic physicality of Mumbai. The furious internal battle is sharply portrayed by Egyptian photographer Aida El-Kashef, who is outstanding as Aaliya, and Neeraj Kabi’s Maitreya. Sameer Khurana provides the few moments of humour in Ship of Theseus as Mannu, a tubby, pragmatic and disgruntled sidekick to Navin.
Gandhi, who has written and directed Ship of Theseus, is an erudite filmmaker. From philosophy, curious biological phenomena and a debate about whether an ideal can exist independent of its champions, there's a wealth of thought-provoking little nuggets scattered in the conversations that make up the film. Unfortunately, this erudition is also Ship of Theseus’s downfall. The story is so obsessed with articulating concepts that the dialogue becomes laboured, characterisation suffers and credibility is stretched to breaking point.
The characters in Ship of Theseus are vessels for ideas, vessels that perform particular functions. However, aside from Aaliya to some extent (all credit to El-Kashef), they have no personality traits. For instance, how does one describe Maitreya the person? After all, “the monk who was part an animal rights campaign and suffered cirrhosis of the liver” isn’t a personality description.
Ship of Theseus begins unravelling with Maitreya’s story and by the time it’s Navin’s turn, the storytelling has completely unspooled. What does Navin do and why is the relationship with his grandmother so haphazardly articulated? Why is his grandmother hospitalised seemingly indefinitely for a broken leg? Why does Navin get so obsessed with one particular case of organ trafficking? Why on earth does the story shift to Stockholm? Is it really that easy to walk into a person’s home and slam accusations upon them with next to nothing by way of evidence? Gandhi offers answers to some of these questions, but none are convincing.
However, just as while watching a commercial Bollywood film we’re not supposed to question the realism or melodrama, similarly in films like Ships of Theseus, the audience is expected to discount problems in storytelling and focus their appreciation upon the ideas being articulated by the film. If you can do that, Ship of Theseus will charm you because it is, for all its flaws, an assured debut. Whether you should have to make such concessions is a separate debate.
Gandhi ends Ship of Theseus with a little video showing the interiors of a cave. All we see are glittering, crystalline rock and the shadow of a man with the camera to his eye. If you keep in mind that the Theseus paradox was put forward by the Platonist philosopher Plutarch, the first thing that comes to mind is Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. In The Republic, Plato likens most of human society to people imprisoned in a cave and resigned to watch shadows on the rock face, believing the ephemeral to be constant and real. The role of a philosopher is to find his way out of the cave and then try to enlighten the other prisoners. Perhaps tellingly, the man seen in the cave at the end of Ship of Theseus seems transfixed by the wall and his own shadow cast upon it. He doesn't make his way out.