Booked your tickets yet? Do it first. Then come back to this post. This isn’t the usual hyperbole. It’s really good and rare chicken soup for your soul. And so the film straight goes into our list of “Must Watch” films.
Our regular contributors Varun Grover, Svetlana Naudiyal, Mihir Desai and Sumit Purohit tells you what the film meant to them, why it spoke the way no other Indian film has done in a long time, and why you should not miss this one at any cost.
And as the norm goes with most of our posts, these are not formal reviews. Just ramblings. Why four? Well, we are going with the theme of of the film – three for three stories and one to connect it all. or something like that. Aha, call it cheap thrill and read on.
Cinema of duality
by Varun Grover
I have been struggling with this scenario for some time now, this concept of duality. Not in a spiritual sense (that is still many years away I think) but in a very daily-life sense. Have been swinging between left and right ideologies, between Arundhati Roy and her detractors, between hedonism of sab chaat lo/bator lo and nihilism of sab chootiyapa hai, between the urge to document every travel trip through photographs/ticket stubs and the need to live in the moment making the concept of posterity sound like a well-manufactured fraud, and many other, similar conundrums.
Anand Gandhi picks up three such stories of duality, set in three different worlds, and binds them together through the philosophical paradox of Ship of Theseus. If that sounds heavy then yes, ambition-wise the film is this heavy. But the beauty is that the team has pulled-it off with great cinematic value in each frame and line of writing. It’s refreshing, beautiful, insightful, and as gripping as a well-made thriller.
The philosophical moorings never get in the way of entertainment or storytelling, the two core elements people safely assume missing from any film termed an ‘Indie’. And that, I think, is the greatest success of Ship of Theseus. Here’s an Indie that appeals to the mind as well as the heart. We don’t need to love it out of some guilt for the poor filmmaker who sold his house and ate only vada-paav for 1008-days non-stop to fund the film. We don’t need to love it because it’s arbitrary and arty and we don’t get it but ‘Mint Lounge or Caravan are loving it so we must too’ pressure. We can love it with all our understanding, ego, and guiltlessness intact, like we love any mainstream film. It’s like health food that doesn’t taste like health food.
The 3 stories – a visually-impaired photographer about to get new eyes, an atheist monk and stand-up comic cum lawyer sparring on about the relative value of an animal’s (and human’s) life, and a man with a new kidney having doubts about the legality and ethics of the transplant – explore one genuine doubt each (माकूल शक़ as KK Raina said in Ek Ruka Hua Faisla) about existence and mortality.
The characters are talking a language rarely heard before on Indian cinema’s screens. The language of loaded words and of a life lived in knowledge. Though I’ve met some people who found the language to be faux-intellectual and the 2nd story a bit too verbose. I think it’ll come down to how invested in the basic conflict of the story you are. Do you want to know more about the layers of conflict at hand or are just happy seeing the surface and are now mumbling ‘Haan samajh gaye…ab aagey story bataao na!’ Like after watching a great film, I spend hours reading about it on the internet. Director’s interviews, googling ‘<film name> explained’, trivia, theories, hate it generated – everything. Sometimes I know how much I liked the film only after realizing I have spent 2 days reading up on it. I think same theory works here – if you find the core debate interesting, you will enjoy the शास्त्रार्थ going on between the monk and stand-up comic. (And what is a stand-up comic if not a modern-day version of debate-loving, analyzing, theorizing monks we read about in stories from mythology, people who debate just for the heck of it. So in a way, 2nd story is a debate on morality between two monks/comics from two different time periods.)
If a film’s merit is in showing a new world with great authenticity and insight, then Ship of Theseus shows us three. And to top that, terrific performances, excellent background score, one brilliant song in Prakrit, and consistently sharp photography throughout made this most-awaited Indian film of the year for me absolutely worth the hype.
“You chose your journey long before you came upon this highway”
I really don’t know what to say amidst the deluge of opinions and interviews and reviews. Social media is flooding with them and here I am, adding my own two bit to that. Will saying that I’ve seen it thrice already at different occasions and will happily (and surely) see it again, suffice?
Quite lazily and shamelessly, I am kind of reiterating something I wrote earlier this year for this very same blog. Primarily because, I think kisne padha hoga. And secondly, what I think about the film, it hasn’t changed a bit. (Also, maybe now I can add some of those so-called spoilers.)
Ship of Theseus invents a language. Not just in terms of cinema, but in terms of thought. It compels you to go home and read. If not read, then at least think. (At times when we spend our lives not thinking, you may discover that ‘thinking’ is a wonderful exercise). It takes you closer to your own self and yet far away from it, where almost unintentionally you find yourself objectively pondering over your own self and its relationship with the world around.
It is so evolved in thought and yet so accessible. Sophisticated, mature and nowhere in the remote vicinity of pretentiousness. And yet it is light like a feather, a pleasant watch replete with humour. (And in case I haven’t yet reiterated enough in indirect phrases, the film stems from life itself.)
The blind photographer’s search for meaning in being able to see, the monk’s dilemma and the stockbroker’s quest for purpose in his own life. You may like a story little less and another a little more, but it is the whole they construct that runs like a background score for you after you’ve seen the film. In our Cinema, where do we see references to something like Unilateralis Cordyceps, Charvak and Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster anyway? Or to introduce a blind photographer, to have a song in ‘Prakrit’, to choose Sweden (Sweden is rated to be one of the most fair and just social systems in the world – this little piece of info comes from the filmmaker, not my discovery. I just crosschecked a bit.)
I also love how the film resorts to traveling. (More of a personal connect, may be, for a firm believer of the idea that any meaning that can ever be found is during a journey). From wandering to a far off valley in Himachal to cave diving in Manipur, a journey into the infinite and open world within.
[May be next week, we could compile a post listing the brilliant moments of the film. There are many. The only one I would probably want to mention for now is Maitreya’s encounter with what seems like death. In each viewing, at that particular moment and in every reflection about that moment, I’ve found myself come to a standstill. Needless to mention, if a film can capture that particular feeling, that moment in all its freezing cold reality, one can imagine how close to life the film is.]
Having said that, I must also admit that I’ve wondered if I’m breathing too much meaning into the film for its (and my) own good. I’ve refuted my own thoughts, with reasons ranging from beauty in lack of perfection to the subjectivity of what we call perfect. I’ve oscillated between “if this is a very well done pop philosophy” to “if this could have been deeper, darker” or something else, something more. Whether it is too much on words or too little on silence? But then again, those questions are personal, subjective and could be irrelevant to someone else who might not or might appreciate the film in a very different way for very different reasons.
Here’s where I found a bit of my answer –
“An early treatment scribble
I’ve made a conscious choice of dialogue over action in several scenes in the script. I felt a strong urge to revert the “show, don’t tell” thumb rule, to the extent that many scenes cut abruptly at their most dramatic high point, and then in the following scenes, the characters narrate, through casual conversation, their experience of the dramatic moment. I analysed this urge to distance myself from the heart of the action. I discovered that I find some human experiences too deep, intimate and emotionally stirring to try and capture on camera. Also the immediacy and the drama of the experience end up fogging the essence, which seems to come out more honestly in the objective after-experience reflection. When a character talks about a moment experienced in the previous scene, it is not intended as a guide for the audience, but rather as an experiential lens, through which the audience lives the moment twice – once through the speculation of the dramatic high point of the moment led towards by the author, which being never shown, is experienced in the imagination, and then, the moment redefined through a tinted world-view of the character.”
It is in being the narrow, delicate bridge between simplicity and complexity, the singularity and duality of the quest for meaning, that Ship of Theseus is poetry reinstating itself as cinema, or vice versa.
Will it change your life? Maybe not. Life changing events and experiencing deep meaningful literature or cinema, are known to be mutually exclusive. But the film is sure to rekindle a little hope and a little faith or maybe a little more.
(p.s. In the 100 years of Indian Cinema brouhaha all around, Ship of Theseus arrives as a perfect anti-tribute and thankfully so! Here’s to The New!)
Let It Sail
by Mihir Desai
I didn’t want Ship of Theseus to end. The philosophical depth and visual beauty put me in a mind space that movies don’t tend to these days. I didn’t want to come out of it, back to mediocrity where filmmakers take their audience for granted. SoT treats the audience as equal, it gives an opportunity to reflect and interact with the thoughts presented in the film. Anand Gandhi very carefully crafts a film that raises questions about identity, ethics and evolution. The three stories within the film come together in what could be the best closing shot of the year! The film doesn’t take the easy route of leaving things up to ‘audience interpretation,’ instead it gives its audience some food for thought, without being preachy.
Ship of Theseus is truly made with an independent spirit. This is an example of what DSLRs are capable of doing. The visuals will prove once again that for DIY and low budget filmmakers, DSLRs are still a worthy investment. Pankaj Kumar’s (Director of Photography) brave cinematic choices takes the core idea of Theseus’ paradox to a whole new level. Three different looks and specific choice of camera movements for each story adds a new dimension to the characters. Technically this is a perfect film.
I look forward to a second viewing of the film as it opens to public. We’ve always been cynical about audiences rejecting new kind of films. The evolution of Indian cinema is in its prime, it’s not the audience that needs to carry this forward, it’s us, the filmmaking community that shouldn’t shy away from taking such risks.
Kyunki Gandhi Bhi Kabhi Soaps Likhta Tha
– by Sumit Purohit
It was a rainy morning of July 2011. The Enlighten Film Society’s Naya Cinema Festival was going to screen Aaranya Kaandam as the closing film. I had heard lot about it, so I went despite the rain and the morning. I had no idea then that I will get introduced to another very special film there. It was announced that post the film screening the excerpts from three upcoming films will be played. I decided to stay back. One of these three films was SHIP OF THESEUS. That was the first time I heard about it. Anand Gandhi was present there with his team. He spoke briefly about the film. But the few minutes of visuals that were played on screen were enough to tell everyone in the theatre that they were witnessing something exceptional. It probably was a film that will change Indian Independent cinema forever.
Almost a year later, Ship of Theseus was screened at Mumbai International Film Festival and it went beyond all expectations. It was not only the best Independent film to come out of India; it was a film which could compete with the finest from around the world. It was a master class in filmmaking. It was technically superior to most Indian films and it explored the stories significant to our times.
To realise that Anand Gandhi is a genius you need not watch his films. You just need to listen him talk for five minutes. He can talk about most things under the sky with great expertise. It seems he is less of a filmmaker and more of a cross between a mad scientist and a philosopher. No wonder he calls his production house a lab and writes research papers too. May be he is the monk from his film, or may be he is the young man who keeps arguing with the monk. Actually, he could be both of them at the same time.
Ship Of Theseus in a way is reflection of what Anand has experienced and learnt over the years. Though what’s wonderful about the film is that it communicates all those ideas and beliefs simplistically yet beautifully when it could have easily become pretentious, preachy or gone all abstract. Ship of Theseus is not what we usually associate with Indie films that have been to film festivals. It’s entertaining, at times humorous and very accessible. It respects its audience, and is intelligent.
The three stories in the film are all set in present Bombay and yet they look like they could be worlds separated by time and space. It’s interesting to notice how Anand uses certain elements in his film. The 1st story is about a blind photographer. Some of the gadgets she uses are straight from science fiction as if the story was taking place in the near future. At the same time the background song with Prakrit lyrics in the 2nd story makes the soundscape feel ancient. It’s a story about a monk who is fighting a court case to ban animal testing in India. He seems to connect with the most unlikely person, a young lawyer who sports long curly hairs and shares Internet jokes with him. In the 3rd story a young stockbroker’s obsession forces him to travel to Stockholm, a place away from his comfort zone. This coming together of contrasting elements makes Ship Of Theseus such an intriguing cinema.
Recently I read that the three films Anand suggested that everyone should watch are – Du Levande (You, the Living), The Turin Horse and Underground. If you look closely, you might find that these films could have influenced Ship Of Theseus conceptually and technically (Gábor ifj. Erdélyi, the sound designer of SOT has also worked on The Turin Horse). SoT has lot of non-actors in the cast, similar to what Roy Andersson prefers. Then there is a scene in the film where a fat man gets stuck in a narrow alley. One can easily imagine it to be a scene from an Emir Kusturica film.
SoT is a great example of how a filmmaker uses his experiences – things he has seen, stories he has heard, films he has watched, books he has read, and gels them together into something new. And at times referring back to them amusingly in the film. This is a good reason why Ship Of Theseus can be seen again – to search for such references, to find those connections and see how they have changed in this process. Isn’t it similar to the Ship of Theseus paradox?
You will not hear or read any negative criticism of Ship of Theseus, so let me try it (for the sake of an argument and for fun). Strictly speaking it’s not a feature film. I will consider it an anthology of three short films that are thematically connected. The three films are visually and stylistically distinctive. It’s deliberate but then you can’t overlook the clear dissimilarity between the writing, the way actors approach their roles, the language used and the impact it creates. But then, for a debut filmmaker this really is not a negative thing. It only shows how talented Anand and his team are and how capable they are at creating these different worlds. It would be really interesting to see what Anand does when he decides to make a feature length film that follows one storyline. What narrative techniques he will use? What cinematic style he will adapt? He is an exciting filmmaker to follow. The best way to start stalking him is by watching Ship Of Theseus.
(PS – If you still need more reason to watch the film and you are a TV soap fan, then you should know that at once upon a time Anand used to write Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi and Kahaani Ghar Ghar ki. Now, that should excite some of you.)
– And if these four writers have not been able to convince you so far, click here to read what Dibakar Banerjee has to say about it. Not everyone has the guts to say such good things about someone else’s film.