More than any other genre, the arthouse, 'cerebral’ film is shackled by its conventions - pretentious philosophical babble, quiet minimalism, flimsy budget and production values, requisite shots of foliage and smoke plumes atop melancholy mountains, and the eventual box office tragedy followed by a cult status. It's a never-ending cycle that keeps repeating so is there any room for expansion in such a genre, that too in India where only the Khans and the mind-numbingly terrible ‘Simply South’ remakes command eyeballs? The outstanding Ship of Theseus answers this question as its director Anand Gandhi lobs grenades at the system and the conventional cycle. This is not only a good looking, splendidly-directed, shot and acted film, but also a hopeful snapshot of Mumbai producing intelligent, challenging yet entertaining cinema on a mainstream scale, instead of star-studded, commercial hogwash.
The title Ship of Theseus refers to the ancient Greek paradox that asks if every part of a ship is changed over time, whether the ship would remain the same. The film is soaked in metaphor, but rooted in everyday life, thanks to Gandhi's superb realisation of the paradox in an Indian setting and all the moral contradictions contained and explored by the paradox. We follow three loosely-entwined stories, one featuring a blind photographer, one that chronicles a scholarly monk, and one that contends with illegal kidney transplants. All three stories hark back to the titular theme, but the film's philobabble is gorgeously elucidated without ever becoming pretentious. In fact, the film's credibility lies in its simple but solid, ideological arguments, echoed constantly throughout its unforgettable imagery and music. Gandhi's style is deliberate and the build-up of each dilemma is provocative, carefully laid out for the personal odysseys of the three protagonists, which reach a powerful and moving conclusion.
The film's cast often surpasses its direction in brilliance. Aida El-Kashef is extremely compelling as a blind photographer who has learned to compose images using a voice-activated camera. Neeraj Kabi as the monk stands out, thanks to his alarmingly convincing portrayal of a man gradually falling ill. His weight slackens as the story progresses and you know we've got our own Christian ‘Machinist’ Bale in our midst. Kabi's conversations with his protégé, a young lawyer who questions his guru's stubborn proclivity to his ethics, are striking and very entertaining. The back and forth between the characters gets under your skin in ways that very few Indian films have managed. In all three segments, the actors manage to infuse their everyday lives with quiet moments of reflection and fear, and Ship of Theseus relies on this construct and such rumination upon hope and desperation to heighten the film’s impact.
Gandhi avoids aesthetic escapades into surrealist imagery and instead dishes out more raw images of the streets of Mumbai. This makes the film accessible to a large demographic rather than just the arthouse snobs. Most of the film's affecting moments happen on relatable territory – a hospital, a slum, a common man's house – and they are crafted well enough to influence even those who've disavowed emotion. The story's focus on physical and mental fragmentation is apparent early on. Even when the film suddenly shifts to a foreign locale, Ship of Theseus doesn't go over the top. It retains its mood and the restrained storytelling that characterises the film. Naren Chandavarkar's music and Pankaj Kumar's fluid handheld camera follow these characters everywhere, haunting them as they make their way through the chaos of blindness, under dank rainy skies and gloomy corridors; sometimes lingering upon a fragment of the characters’ lives long enough to capture an entire lifetime of experience in a matter of minutes.
Sure, there are a few flaws that crop up once or twice. The most apparent is Vinay Shukla who plays the protégé who debates with Kabi and recites some of his intellectual, philosophical ideas as if reading off a teleprompter, with no passion in his delivery. (When a person debates the dilemma of physical and spiritual rescue and the dissolution of hope, you’d imagine they would be passionate about it.) But you could say what you wish, nitpick through the night, dissect and dismantle every part of the film and rearrange it how you want, it won't change the fact that Ship of Theseus is the work of a visionary. Anand Gandhi's debut feature clearly is the first step on a journey to becoming a great filmmaker, and hopefully he won't succumb to the wet kiss of the God complex. We get far too few opportunities in India to see sharp, intelligent cinema like Gandhi’s on the big screen.
Mihir Fadnavis is a film critic and certified movie geek who has consumed more movies than meals. He blogs at http://mihirfadnavis.blogspot.inand his Twitter handle is @mihirfadnavis.