Cast: Neeraj Kabi, Aida Al-Kashef, Sohum Shah
Director: Anand Gandhi, Vinay Shukla
Runtime: 139 min.
Verdict: Reduces beliefs and existences to ideas and concepts. Sort of like a highlight package.
Considering the title, is Mr. Gandhi doing nothing with the structure of his narrative, or you know the identity of his narrative via his various elements? If the intention was to deal with the Theseus paradox merely at a diegetic level, then (a) the movie doesn’t so as much deals with it as much as describes it, and (b) every movie ever made, or every narrative ever told does deal with causality and thus refers to the paradox. I mean, narratives are all about identities, don’t you think, and were it not for those men who tattoo the words – “Mera baap chor hai” – on little Vijay’s arms, would he have grown up to be the man he was. Thakur Baldev Singh claim to fame in popular culture is all about his chopped arms no? In The Dark Knight, was Harvey Dent always Two-Face, or did circumstance replace one identity with the other? Who’s Alfred Borden? Why does Mr. Gibney have to dwell on Bradley Manning’s identity crisis? What I’m getting at here is every film ever made and every story ever told is about identity, more so at a spiritual level, and when Ship of Theseus sort of reduces this question to a more materialist and literal one, with organs and all, I’m wondering if an opportunity has been missed. An opportunity to not merely dwell in the identities existing in the diegetic world but to understand the identity of the object at hand itself, i.e. the film.
For instance, is the film sum of its three stories? What would happen if I were to remove one of them? What would happen if I were to change the order in which they were narrated? What happens if I were to replace the characters of one story with those of one of the others? What would’ve happened if it was shot on film? This interview with Mr. Pankaj Kumar here tells me precious little. What happens if the film were black and white? I’m asking these questions because a structural understanding of the identity of a movie and experimenting with that identity would’ve probably given some sort of credence to a movie that calls itself Ship of Theseus. The way I look at it, the paradox of Theseus can be attributed to the diegesis of every movie, and thus Mr. Gandhi’s film owed its identity (its title or whatever) to be a meta-reading. I understand, I’m seeking a critical path not much appreciated where I’m asking a movie to be something it is not. In my defense, in this particular context, I believe such an argument is necessary.
Nevertheless, we come back to the movie. And come back to the more acceptable practice of dealing with a movie on its own terms. In this case, the diegesis. Let us begin with the story of Maitreya (Mr. Kabi), a monk quite uncompromising in his ideals. Ideals that seem to have been reasoned out and thought over. His audience is not the mass but the political and scientific elite of the society, the section that can cause an argument. With his round spectacles and gaunt presence, he walks everywhere and reasons with everybody. Sort of like a proxy Gandhi. He walks barefoot, through rain and rugged terrain, and every perpendicular composition Mr. Gandhi offers of him, as he keeps marching across it, impresses upon us his intransigence. He wakes up in the night and walks amidst rain and sun to make it to the high court and fight his case against pharmaceutical companies guilty of ill-treatment towards animals. From shot to shot, through the thin layers of the dhoti, Mr. Gandhi pins Maitreya’s figure against his surroundings, the latter merciless and the former relentless. We see his body, and the bodies of his fellow monks, and the physicality and belief are not because of each other but in spite of each other. So when irony causes his liver to break down and potentially seek the very allopathic treatment he fights, he resorts to a quasi-hunger-strike. It is a harrowing passage in the film, his physicality slowly but surely eroding, his abdomen sinking, and lesions all over him. One’s reminded of Hunger, and even if one’s not, the film’s preceding dynamic between the body and the belief somehow takes an about turn. He starts hallucinating, and one feels the resolve of his beliefs seem to be eroding just as fast as his body.
Now, dear reader, we are talking about beliefs here, we’re talking about faith here, not in an external source but faith in one’s self, and here Mr. Gandhi, for what I believe to be entirely conceptual/thematic reasons, equates the self to the hard tangible body. I’m not sure that’s how Bobby Sands would’ve seen things, and from Mr. Gandhi, whose compositions and lighting suggest a whole lot of intangible in every shot, this focus on the body somehow feels false. The initial dynamic that suggested a belief emanating more from within somehow, to my disappointment, stands negated. That’s not the deal-breaker though. There exists within the narrative his antithesis in the form of a bright young cynical lawyer Charvaka (Mr. Shukla) whose purpose is to argue with Maitreya and lose it thereby suggesting the latter’s well-thought-through ideology, and in the process indulging in a little wit and a lot of Linklater-esque idea-bombing. In numerous conversations between them Maitreya always has the final word until the very end where his body has given up on him and Charvaka comes up with another of his idea bombs and delivers a monologue about the dubious nature of identity, equating identity with body. Maitreya doesn’t reply thereby giving the impression that Charvaka has finally scored, and the narrative seems to confirm this by having the monk give up on his belief and finally seeking refuge in allopathy. He bails out of the frame while his would-be death-bed stays there, providing a uniquely what-the-fuck moment. Did we really need Charvaka and his idea bombs? Weren’t Maitreya’s struggles with his body enough (read: Walker)? Here’s a man whose faith is directed inwards and thus vulnerable. I mean, compromising on the self is a pretty easy temptation don’t you think, and it is a considerable subject on its own to not need a Charvaka idea-bomb us some mumbo-fucking-jumbo about bacteria ala the doctor explaining anterograde amnesia at the start of Ghajini, and pretend to be the catalyst? Maitreya’s beliefs didn’t deserve a contrast, and if at all it was really necessary to question them, I would’ve rather Mr. Gandhi engage in a proper conversation.
As in, engage in a deeper understanding. As opposed to conceptual variations of the same element. These vignettes deserve the full-blown treatment, not merely skimming through the surface. Consider for instance the predicament of the blind photographer Aaliya (Ms. El-Kashef), a genius who takes supposedly incredible pictures, who likes to believe that she has complete control on her craft, and is thereby completely responsible for the art that comes out of it. She’s blind, and she seeks sounds that inspire her. Sounds which stoke her imagination, an imagination which she carefully reduces to the sum total of it variables, and it is these variables that she arranges to take her pictures. Serendipity is something she doesn’t abide by. She undergoes a cornea transplant, and her imagination is replaced with sight. What I have described above is a concept, a situation, and Mr. Gandhi goes hardly beyond this concept to understand the underlying beliefs, the absurdity of existence and the toll it takes on an artist. It is said that constraints is what makes the craft cause the art, and Mr. Gandhi’s rendition of this situation seems to barely acknowledge the nature of the twin constraints here – the presence/absence of sight - forget dealing with them. What we rather get is standard-issue frustration with loss of inspiration. For a person so possessive about her control, would she so meekly cave in to this new change? Mr. Gandhi instead sends her from the kitsch of everyday life to the kitsch of the mountains, and here he and Mr. Kumar cause a little neat little contrast through their compositions. While Aaliya, in her blindness, is within the center of the frame, i.e. her world, i.e. her art, there is a marked orientation once she is in front of the Himalayas. The mountains stand majestically towards one end of the frame, as if like the cinema screen, and she towards the other. There is a chasm, and one might even be mistaken to feel that these are some sort of composite images, the truth being that Aaliya’s craft seems to have bid her goodbye and all she could do is see rather than capture. The question is, now what? The problem is, I’m no closer to Aaliya then I would have been to a Wikipedia description her. While the transformation of beliefs and character, both with Aaliya and Maitreya are complicated situations that do not in the least warrant a temporal compromise, the damn thing here feels like a highlight package.The case of the stockbroker, Navin (Mr. Shah) is sure a step up, more detailed than the others (probably owing to the fact that Mr. Gandhi probably lived through most of it, which is fine. I’m all for ideas, I seek them and Mr. Gandhi’s film does that have a lot of them. But what I seek even more desperately is cinema, and I’m not so sure Ship of Theseus is quite there yet. Images yes, but temporality no. He can cause moments and he cause images, but he seems to be writer filled with ideas and not a voyeur filled with desires. Navin here is such a sweet example of convenience, reducing the stock-broker to some kind of ethic-less stereotype without even taking the character on his own terms. A convenience that is easily caused by having characters with the express purpose of reciting the dynamic rather than showing it. When these guys, all three of them, are linked together through their parts, witnessing the images of their donor, it was almost a blatant self-precious nod at the dynamic between the movie and us. To that I say, dear reader, if you want to shake me and stir me and you know transform me, it better be with more than just a set of ideas.