The paradoxical nature of life is implicit in the Greek myth from which Anand Gandhi’s thoughtful film, Ship of Theseus, takes its title. Theseus’ ship was repaired, plank-by-plank, to the point where no material from the original remained in the restored craft — a story used by Greek philosopher Plutarch to pose provocative questions about what constitutes authenticity and identity.
Gandhi’s debut film recasts these philosophical enquiries in a contemporary context via a triptych of stories based largely in Mumbai. Each tale turns on an incident about body replacement via organ donation — but uses this plot point to interrogate such issues as the meaning of art, the nature of existence and the role of the individual in society.
Sounds like a tough watch? Surprisingly, not at all. The philosophical enquiries are handled with a real lightness of touch, even humour, and presented by engaging characters.
The first of these is Aliya (filmmaker Aida El Kashef), who counter-intuitively takes up photography when left blind by a cornea infection. She becomes a celebrated photographer who relies on a mixture of intuition, specialised software and supportive boyfriend (Faraz Khan) to create her images.
But Aliya is conflicted about the role that chance necessarily plays in her artmaking — and discovers that accepting a cornea implant doesn’t offer easy solutions to her dilemmas.
The middle — and strongest piece — revolves around Jain monk Maitreya (theatre actor Neeraj Kabi), who is fighting a court case against animal testing by pharmaceutical companies. Maitreya’s belief in the sacredness of all life is severely challenged when diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver.
He will die unless he accepts an organ transplant — and all the associated medication — but this goes contrary his principles. His position is challenged by young lawyer Charvaka (Vinay Shukla) who accuses him of forfeiting his life at the altar of “a thought experiment”.
Part three looks at stockbroker Navin (Sohum Shah), who prefers swimming in the emotionally undemanding shallows rather than jumping into the deep end of life. An accidental meeting introduces him to Shankar (Yashwant Wasnik), whose kidney has been stolen during an appendectomy. Navin decides to travel to Stockholm in search of the organ recipient — and justice. Among the triple-bill, this tale feels a bit forced, though it does eventually complement Gandhi’s overall structure.
While crisper editing would have furthered the largely uncluttered narrative, cinematographer Pankaj Kumar’s sophisticated visuals transform the film into a tone poem in parts. A beautiful interplay of emptiness and movement, the stylish imagery lightens the erudite chatter.
But even when it gets talky, the actors own their dialogue. The portrayals are well observed and naturalistic, with Kabi’s a standout performance for which he apparently lost some 17 kilos. It’s an almost faultless portrayal of the monk as a sum of many paradoxes.
A movie about the philosophies of existence can so easily fall into the Pretentious Trap — but rest assured, this one does not. If a slow-but-absorbing cruise through provocative waterways appeals, snap up tickets to board this ship.
Director: Anand Gandhi
Cast: Aida El Kashef, Neeraj Kabi, Sohum Shah, Faraz Khan, Vinay Shukla
Storyline: Three Mumbai-based protagonists must confront their philosophy of life when making a choice about organ donation.
Bottomline: Sensitively realised film on life beliefs and responsibilities.