Ship of Theseus doesn’t go the full distance in examining the notion of the individual self.
Anand Gandhi’s much-celebrated Ship of Theseus (SoT) has received rave reviews for being “profound”, “cerebral” and “thought-provoking”, a film that has plumbed the depths of philosophical reflection while remaining accessible to an audience usually fed a mind-numbing diet of commercial claptrap. Expressions of admiration from people as diverse as Dibakar Banerjee, Karan Johar and Arundhati Roy are sprinkled all over social media platforms to publicise the film. But what is at stake in framing the film and its audiences thus?
One thing that leaps to the eye is the construction of a binary between a ‘thoughtful’ and a ‘thoughtless’ cinema. Yet it is curious that most commentators do not explicate the specific thoughts they were provoked into by the movie. Anand Patwardhan wrote, for instance, that it took him “that crucial step further in its rediscovery of the human” — though it is far from clear what that step is. Or as Rajeev Masand concluded, “It stimulates the one organ that popular Hindi cinema consistently ignores: the brain! Give it a chance and prepare to be dazzled.” And indeed he seems too dazzled to go any further.
On the other hand, to pick a recent example, a movie like Raanjhanaa sparked lively discussions about stalking and acceptable expressions of infatuation. As Jennifer Deger has shown, even the Rambo series has been interpreted in novel and unorthodox ways by the aboriginal Yolngu community of Australia, who read into the films their own narratives of clan history, folklore, and ancestral drama. This is not to airbrush the films’ complicity in exploitative gender relations or Cold War politics respectively but rather to say that these films have, perhaps despite themselves, provoked thought and debate among particular audiences. In a different but related sense, genres have their own modes of inviting thought from audiences. This does not make melodrama a ‘thoughtless’ genre in toto, just as it does not make documentary or realist fiction an automatically ‘thoughtful’ one, a point well made by Jai Arjun Singh discussing SoT on his blog.
As Gandhi puts it, “Ship of Theseus has managed to break the norm... It’s like an author going to a moneybag and the moneybag asking him if [the film] can be more profound, not demanding that it be toned down or made more populist.” Alternatives to a mainstream certainly do not need to be sought only in spaces somehow outside of market influences, and any cultural production that stretches the limits of presently constituted markets deserves support. But it still needs to be noted that the norms being broken in this case are in terms of a film generating lucrative returns. So when Shekhar Kapur praises SoT as “[the] most significant film from India for a long time”, or Anurag Kashyap is put to shame by “probably the most brilliant film [to] have been made in India in decades”, they overlook the question of the film’s marketability and thereby fail to acknowledge a wide variety of much more politically and stylistically radical cinema being produced in India. Gurvinder Singh’s award-winning Anhey Ghorhey Da Daan (2011), a powerful film made on a lower budget than SoT, was clearly not considered comparably marketable or laudable. Sweeping congratulatory statements of the kind discussed above further allow market forces to marginalise such films in accounts of Indian cinema.
In interviews Gandhi has emphasised the role of the film’s narrative in provoking debate among its audiences. While a fuller appraisal of SoT requires an examination of other facets of the film such as the acting and cinematography, for our current purposes as well it will be helpful to examine one aspect of its narrative strategy. The movie is framed by the Greek paradox of the ship of Theseus: if all the planks of a ship have been replaced, and a new ship is made of those planks, does the identity of the ship remain the same? By beginning with this paradox and then relaying the stories of three people who undergo organ replacement surgeries, the film positions itself as questioning the figure of the individual but, in this, it hardly goes any significant distance. So for example Hollywood’s version of Wolverine is saturated with debates over who Wolverine is: what with the adamantine that has replaced his bones and his memory being erased. Is he a beast, a mutant, a failed experiment, a soldier? Where is his self in all these roles? These points are actively debated among fans of the series as well. Does SoT push these questions any further? Not really.
Aliya the photographer, Maitreya the monk, and Naveen the stockbroker are presented to us as loci for interrogating the notion of the self. Charvaka pushes Maitreya into thinking about where his body ends and where the environment begins. Yet where does his mind begin and where does it end? A question this film seems incapable of imagining is: if I pass on an idea to you, are you still the same person? It has been argued that the movie shows how these different individuals are constituted in dialogue and argument.
However, with all the talk of ethics and responsibility passing between Maitreya and Charvaka, with each revising their points of view to varying degrees in the process, these changes are not suggestively brought to bear upon what it means to make decisions and choices in conditions not of their choosing. Are they still simply different individuals who are talking against a backdrop of socio-political forces that influence them but are clearly distinct from them? That is, while the movie suggests that Maitreya’s physical body is in a continuum with the environment supposedly outside it, it does not anywhere suggest that Maitreya’s thinking self is in continuum with the various conversations and processes he is a part of.
An opportunity is lost in terms of using the trope of the physical transplant to metaphorically suggest much more. Subject construction (how an individual is constructed and made available in society) and agency has also been explored by films like Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, where the coherence of characters is disrupted by their own conflicting testimonies that are informed by different interests. More recently Dibakar Banerjee’s Love Sex Aur Dhokha has looked at how individuals are constructed and their bodies consumed in their interactions with cameras. SoT contributes nothing to this discussion.
Furthermore, given the voluminous work in film theory that has dealt with questions of subject construction, it is remarkable that SoT does not betray any awareness of this. But then Anand Gandhi has perhaps pre-empted our critique by arguing that “when I am making the surface layers so transparent, so simple and so parable-like, there is also the other danger of people ... [imposing] the limitation of their interpretation on the film... Some people are saying, ‘Oh, this film is only talking about this.’ Usually, what happens is that they are not talking about the film but their interpretation and criticising the interpretation itself.”
But does not a parable by definition call for an actively interpretative audience? And how can a film exist outside of its interpretations in any case? Gandhi’s film certainly does not sail without strong winds backing it.