Movie name: Ship of Theseus
Cast: Aida El Kashef, Neeraj Kabi, Sohum Shah
Director: Anand Gandhi
Glide into Mumbai. A young woman photographer, frets in one of those minimally-curtained high-rise apartments. A benign Jain monk walks on in the lacerating rains. And a stockmarket player is admonished by his grandma for caring a damn about sagging social conditions. Here, then, are three separate lives, as unlike one another as night and day. But hang on, there’s a binding factor.
Call that factor self-rediscovery or self-redefinition, the trio is portrayed at turning points of their private and professional lives. And their three stories are interwoven by first-time feature film director Anand Gandhi with such originality, compassion and playful humour in Ship of Theseus, that you’re thoroughly exhilarated.
Both in terms of its ravishing digital technique and dramaturgy, the outcome is proof that a filmmaker from inside and outside the industrial system can carve out a place to stand and make his own movie. It is a place, where, seemingly, he can have the best of two worlds, melding the individuality of the undergrounder with the possibility of getting national financing, decent promotion and general theatrical release from the powers-that-be.
Of course, there’s a flipside. Anand Gandhi may have lucked out by securing corporate support, thanks to its presenter Kiran Rao. Others may have found a godpapa in Anurag Kashyap. But what about the ceaseless number struggling out there — including recent graduates from the Pune Film Institute — without access to the names that matter?Another issue altogether.
For right now, here’s celebrating the fact that Ship of Theseus, after winning serial hosannas from international film festivals, is now docked at the local multiplexes. And whatever its commercial performance may be, don’t be put off by the hurly burly of the film’s ticket sale statistics, or by its somewhat dense title.
The Ship of Theseus is a reference to Greek mythology: Plutarch wrote about a ship, which was renovated piece by piece to the point of becoming unrecognisable from the original. Cool. That sidebar information, with philosophical undertones, can be stored by the viewer as a sub-text. Instead, the three plot-lets attract you for their characters at the crossroads, beginning with the photographer of Egyptian origin (Aida El Kashef). Challenged by a cornea infection, blindness motivates her work of image-making. For feedback, she depends on her boyfriend, but is frequently uncertain about his responses. Could he just be patronizing her?
Now how many of us are willing to be auto-critical, or question our abilities? Like Theseus, she undergoes a makeover, which sparks new insecurities. In fact, this marvellously observed story, detailing quirks of behaviour, turns out to be the anthology’s most emotionally provocative.
Next: an articulate Jain monk (Neeraj Kabi), with a Gandhian bent and clued into the advances or the lack of them in the Western world, has to make a do-or-die decision. Diagnosed with a terminal liver ailment, he must agree to surgical intervention, but that’s against his principles. To be or to continue a rigid battle? Peppered with intelligent dialogue — verging on the existential — the monk’s story is as paradoxical as it is moving. You actually wait, fingers crossed, for him to take a key-decision.
The final episode is thickly plotted and by comparison, takes off into too many tangents while discussing the illegal organ trade. Apolitical and apathetic, the self-absorbed stockbroker (Sohum Shah), is stricken by a guilty conscience, on encountering a down-at-heel bricklayer whose kidney was removed illicitly in the course of a simple surgery. Begins the stockbroker’s investigation into the murky business, which culminates in a trip to Stockholm. Suffice it to say that he comes across a medical case study which brooks no generalisations.
Without contriving a thread to sew the triptych together, Anand Gandhi invites the viewer to share his take on humanitarian values, and especially on social responsibility. In addition, the director displays a sensitive feel for the cityscape (particularly the haphazard architecture) and for the smallness most people feel when they measure themselves against its vastness (note a beautiful shot of monks on the sea rocks facing the Worli-Bandra sea link). As importantly, the director avoids manipulative technique and smarter-than-thou script surprises.
His actors, many of whom are either amateurs or engaged in theatre work, have been clearly encouraged to opt for naturalism, eschewing any form of theatrical artifice.
The lead players — filmmaker Aida El Kashef, Neeraj Kabi and Sohum Shah are uniformly inspired. Vinay Shukla as a gently argumentative lawyer leaves a strong thumb impression.
Visually Pankaj Kumar’s flawless cinematography shows a synergy with the director’s thoughts and ideas. Gabor Erdelyi, the regular sound designer of the avant-gardist Bela Tarr, and editor Reka Lemhenyi — both from Hungary — contribute to the team spirit.
The project coming from Anand Gandhi, a playwright who once wrote for several episodes of the soap operas Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi and Kahani Ghar Ghar Kii, functions like a jazz melody — as a place to take off and a place eventually to come home to. Forget all the artsy-tartsy prejudices about Ship of Theseus. Here are three stories well told, signifying independent cinema’s coming of age.
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