Ship of Thesus
I am a kind of cinephile that would eat anything that is on my plate. I don’t read reviews, watch trailers, consider ratings and follow hype in choosing what to watch. I also do not have a particular genre that I consider my favorite. However, I have a soft spot for arthouse films because it reach deep in my soul and leave a lasting impression to ponder for long. I came across this film after watching Tumbadd and had decided to follow the filmography of the makers. Ship of Theseus is the first feature-length film of Anand Gandhi (co-writer, executive producer, and creative director – Tumbadd). It was critically acclaimed and had received accolades from international and national film festivals.
Story, Frames & Score
The title of the film alludes to the thought experiment Theseus’ Paradox in the metaphysics of identity which serves as the central philosophical underpinning of the film. The movie opened with the narration of the paradox which engages in debating whether an object that has had all of its components replaced remains fundamentally the same object or not. The movie is composed of three beautiful stories told through different perspectives. It uses character-driven narratives with sturdy characterization. The three seemingly disconnected desperate stories are presented with an overarching questioning of self-identity as the fundamentals of the thought experiment.
The first story centers on the life of a visually impaired and celebrated Egyptian photographer that “sees” beauty in everything that surrounds her through her other senses. She had a healthy relationship with her boyfriend who helped her with her artworks. When she undergo a cornea transplant to restore her vision, she became so overwhelmed of the things she see. She then begun doubting herself and is dissatisfied with her photography which also somewhat affected her relationship and well-being.
The second story is about a Jain Monk who believes in the sanctity of life and adheres extreme observance of his ideologies. He is part of the petition to ban animal testing in India. When he was diagnosed with liver cirrhosis, his reluctance towards the animal-tested medication is questioned. However, on his deathbed he questioned not only his self-identity and ideology but his faith as well.
The last story is about a young stockbroker who is living his self-consumed life and just received a new kidney. When he heard about the case of organ theft involving an impoverished bricklayer, Shankar, he was shaken by an incident which made him question his social responsibility. After knowing his new kidney is legally acquired, he promised to get Shankar’s kidney back by all means.
The visuals are aesthetic. With the backdrop of contemporary Mumbai, every story becomes more realistic because of its setting and production design. The first story is set on the heart of Mumbai, the busy streets, the crowded places, dystopian neighborhood, and Aaliya’s apartment were shot and framed beautifully using high key lighting and shallow focus. The second story features rain-soaked long deserted streets with the monk walking barefooted carrying his umbrella. I can’t understand why, but I always love anything that is shot under the rain be it artificial or monsoon rain. This part of the story was mostly shot using low to bleak lights but the white robes of the monks give out a refreshing vibe on this sad story. Most scenes were shot using wide range angles, tracking and occasional aerial shots. The last story which mostly happened on the hospital used tight and close up shots. All the stories are visually appealing. Among my favorite scenes are the closing frame of the first story with Aaliya seen in the stream, with snowy mountain backdrop while in search for her lost identity and soul. The most magical for me is the drone shot during the parade of the saint accompanied with the sublime score. Another unforgettable frame is the ending scene which depict the Plato’s allegory of the cave. One noticeable motif is the stunning ray of light that is casted on the main characters. First time behind camera, DOP Pankaj Kumar who also co-authored the story exhibited amazing talent on camera works and the manipulation of various elements to create a visually sublime frames.
The score is another remarkable addition to the narratives. The film has no song insertion all throughout the film. The instrumental interludes is delicately scored by British violist, violinist and composer Benedict Taylor. The BGM has intensified the emotions depicted on the frames and gives out a lasting impact among the viewers.
The actors are good in fleshing out their characters and all show ownership of their dialogues. Aida El-Kashef acting as Aaliya Kamal, is a filmmaker and director who accidentally get casted after the director got impressed with her script reading when they held audition for Aaliya’s boyfriend. Though this is her acting debut, she played her role with openness and sincerity. Neeraj Kabi, a theater actor and director, essays Maitreya’s character with boldness and consistency. He does not only deliver a very convincing performance but also goes through unbelievable physical transformation to flesh out his character. Sohum Shah who courageously produced this film portrays Navin Parnami’s avatar. He surrenders completely with his character dynamics and adds to the fantastic acting ensemble. Faraz Khan as Vinay Sukla is another perfect addition to the cast. His enthusiastic character makes Maitreya and the audience delve in deep thoughts and reasoning.
Screenplay & Direction
I highly commend the screenplay. The philosophical inquiries are handled with lightness and humor making the movie more interesting. Anand Gandhi creates the characters with severity and affections that the audience will feel, hear, see, and breathe along with the characters. Character development is solid and the director is able to push the actors to their utmost potentials to deliver a heartwarming and compelling performances.
The movie combines verbal and visual narratives perfectly that make the audience completely submerge with the story. The dialogues on the second story between Vinay and Maitreya are thought-provoking and soul-stirring. The paradox presented evokes emotion as well as analysis and reasoning. The movie starts and ends with philosophical paradoxes that tickle audience’s intellect.
The story is unique and poetic. After the first story, I was confused of the abrupt change and introduction of a new story. When the last story unfolds, I am perplex as how these three stories would come to an end. When the finale unveils, I was taken aback, it is mind-blowing. Thanks to the sharp editing by Adesh Prasad everything flows seamless until the end. How the seemingly separated stories interwoven into a beautiful finale is neat and well-written. It is so magical that I had the longest goosebumps I could remember while watching a film. My reaction on the climax is enigmatic. With keen direction, Anand Gandhi’s directorial debut about life, self-identity, wisdom, love, and death motivates the audience to question themselves about how they value life, body, soul, and ideology. This movie transcends the limit of allegory through razor sharp dialogues.
However, the film is not without flaws. I particularly find the third story with minor plot holes. Some scenes seem like superficial at some point and its conclusion is a bit rush and some details are missing. However, with solid acting and sharp dialogues it is forgivable.
This is among the most moving and most thought-provoking movie I’ve seen in recent years. Aside from the premise that the thought experiment originally revolves, the movie offers life metaphors that should be given thoughts to. Like the lens cover of Aaliya’s camera being drifted away by the current, we should keep our eyes open and enjoy the beauty of what’s in front of us rather than keep on searching and wanting something we lost in the past. We could be like the worm in the middle of the hallway with people walking to and pro in the second story. We may think it is our karma to be there and get crushed even if somebody would save us however we could stay on the pot or we could crawl back to our nirvana. Or do we value other things we consider necessary like money other than our health, dignity and well-being like Shankar? This film is not only heart-touching but is definitely life-changing and among the best I have seen from Indian cinema industry. Another arthouse film that is beautifully written, soulfully acted, and sensibly directed. It’s a slow but absorbing film that every art house enthusiasts will definitely love. A soul-searching movie so visually sublime that would lead to intellectual orgasm.
Disclaimer: The above review solely illustrates the views of the writer.