Indie Indian cinema has finally come of age on the international fest scene, and no film better demonstrates this than “Ship of Theseus.” Tyro helmer Anand Gandhi’s sophisticated look at the consequences of individual actions, spread across three Mumbai-set storylines, demonstrates an assured grasp of the philosophy he’s promoting as well as the intricacies of cinematic language, and while the third strand is arguably a bit messier than the others, it too has potency. Too bad arthouses haven’t caught on to the diversity of talent coming out of the subcontinent.
Were “Ship of Theseus” from a European country, it’s likely that limited but solid repertory play would be in the cards, but until public minds stop tagging all Indian cinema as Bollywood, indie producers have an uphill battle ahead. More’s the pity, since Gandhi brings to the screen likable characters whose intelligent discussions make auds painlessly question notions of cause and effect. At least fests have taken up the call, and further travels are a certainty.
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The title comes from the Greek myth in which Theseus’ ship was slowly renewed, piece by piece, until there was no longer an original. Plutarch turned the paradox into a parable, probing the nature of replacement, and Gandhi furthers the debate, using the concept of organ donation to elaborate on individuality and collective responsibility. The philosophy sounds heavy, but the plotlines are so involving that theoretical underpinnings act as connecting tissue rather than leaden jackets.
A cornea infection leaves Egyptian visual artist Aliya (filmmaker Aida El Kashef) blind. Refusing to give in to the disability, which may be temporary, she takes up photography with the help of special software that tells her what she’s shooting. Also assisting is b.f. Vinay (Faraz Khan, particularly strong), who vectorizes her photos so she can feel the images.
Jain monk Maitreya (Neeraj Kabi) brings a lawsuit against pharmaceutical companies testing their products on animals. Intellectual yet down-to-earth, he lives by a philosophy grounded in the sanctity of all life. When doctors tell him he needs a liver transplant or he’ll die, he refuses treatment, convinced that accepting the medicines necessary for organ donation would go against his beliefs.
Apolitical stock broker Navin (Sohum Shah, also producing) clashes with his activist grandma on questions of personal responsibility. While visiting her in the hospital, he meets Shankar (Yashwant Wasnik), an impoverished man who had one of his kidneys illicitly removed during a simple appendectomy; the man’s distress strikes a chord, since Navin himself just had a kidney transplant. After checking to make sure his new organ wasn’t illegally pilfered, he tracks down Shankar’s kidney recipient in Sweden.
Gandhi’s work as a playwright reveals itself in the confidence with which he structures each segment, and the intelligent ease of his dialogue generally disguises its didacticism. All three narratives (satisfyingly brought together at the finale) find their well-developed characters confronting their responsibilities, for their own lives as well as for others. Aliya’s refusal to cave in to her blindness, and her fear of dependence, force her to question the artistic process that goes into capturing an image; she won’t allow chance to enter her photos, even though what’s accidental can also be fortuitous.
The segment with Maitreya is structured like an Aristotelian debate, with the monk defending his choices to young lawyer Charvaka (Vinay Shukla), who in turn argues with him to accept the organ transplant. Navin’s story is more literal, and also feels a bit more artificial, but it adds another element to the conversation, and remains integral to the film’s conceit.
Visuals are firmly in the indie aesthetic, with handheld lensing sensitive to the play of light and the alternation of intimacy with unexpected grandeur. Gandhi brought in several Hungarian collaborators, notably Reka Lemhenyi (“Taxidermia”) to assist with editing and Bela Tarr regular Gabor Erdelyi on sound. While “Ship of Theseus” doesn’t shy away from its Western-inspired influences, the film fully embraces its Indian roots.