What’s the fun if a film doesn’t get its share of contrarian views? And with all honesty, not for the sake of it. So over to Aditya Sudarshan who ponders over the latest indie film which is the toast of the town.
(Contains plot information)
By now, Ship of Theseus is a phenomenon. From UK critics to Bollywood directors, from Dibakar Bannerjee to Karan Johar, it has been hailed as an absolute, once-in-a-blue-moon work of genius. That these opinions are honest, that the film genuinely spoke to people, is not being questioned here. The question I am asking is: Why? How? And what does this say about us- sociologically?
I say ‘sociologically’, because as art goes, I am going to argue that Ship of Theseus features a level of thought that can at best be termed ‘half-baked’, and a level of storytelling which is strictly average. And perhaps if either of these elements had been different- for better or worse- the flaws of the movie would have become indisputably clear. It’s easy to recognize that a film which has nothing to say and says it badly, is bad- take any example from mainstream Bollywood. It’s also easy to recognize ‘grand failures’- for example, Terrence Malik’s Tree of Life, grounded as it is in actually deep philosophy, shows up its failed story-telling. But deception arises when a movie has nothing particular to say and says it not too badly. In the case of SoT, this multiplication of mediocrity has passed as good- and then, wedded to the truly beautiful cinematography, has passed as genius.
Why is the thought in SoT mediocre? Because name-dropping is not the same as knowledge. Because being enamoured of philosophy is not the same as doing philosophy. In the history of human thought, the Grecian paradoxes, like Theseus’, and Zeno’s (who asked how a man could cross a room, when he must first cross half the room and before that half of the half and so on infinitely), have actually been tackled. Understanding what infinity really implies is a part of the answer. Getting to grips with ‘God’ is a part of the answer.
But I am getting ahead of myself. I am starting to engage seriously with questions that SoT does not even seriously raise. And the key word here is seriously. If SoT had seriously put forth a vision of a Godless universe where karmic causality is the only truth (as in the lines from the monk’s chant, Naham Janami), of a world without boundaries where we are really not individuals but colonies, where there is no intrinsic right or wrong but only consequences to actions- had the movie had this power, then it would have made sense to plunge into such discussions.
The very fact that these discussions seem unwarranted and ‘too much’ here, is testimony to SoT’s half-heartedness. After all, enjoying a mantra is not the same as understanding its meaning. The mystery of free-will is not disposed off because a long-haired lawyer has read an anecdote about the behaviour of ants. Our moral sense of right and wrong is not shown to be illusory because an old woman with a broken leg has probably read ‘The Secret’.
What such scenes and dialogues do, is flatter viewers into believing they have engaged with deep and significant truths, when really they have merely gawked at them- from a very, very safe distance.
I have less to write about the story-telling, because as I said earlier, had it not been for their supposed philosophical weight, I doubt these stories would in any case have been so praised. Without doubt, the three stories in SoT all feature interesting, meaningful premises and strong performances. But the film fails to confront a single great crisis in any of them. All together, they are a bundle of beginnings. The story of the blind photographer reaches her crisis- and rests there. Why and how the monk’s faith alters, and what the alteration really means to him- is untold. And humour and stock cliches (the ‘fat sidekick’, the ‘hapless slum-dweller’) become means to escape engagement with the real moral realities of ‘do-gooding.’ When the grandmother says the line that closes the third story (prior to the epilogue)- ‘itna hi hota hai‘- she could well be talking about the whole movie. So you thought Ship of Theseus would really say something? Arre bhai- ‘itna hi hota hai‘.
I hope it will be noted here that I’m not heaping any insults whatsoever on this film. I don’t say it’s pretentious. I don’t say it’s dishonest. It is, in my opinion, almost touchingly honest- the way an adolescent enamoured of big ideas- and unequal to them- is touchingly honest. Unconsummated ideas, unconsummated stories, there are all the honest expressions of an over-awed and wonder-struck mind.
What is not ok, is for such an un-rigorous and adolescent piece of work (and ‘adolescent’ here, I emphasize, is not a pejorative, but a term of description), to pass as a mature masterpiece. This brings me to the question I started with and am also closing with, because I am going to think about it further myself. (And this is the only real food for thought SoT left me with). Why is this movie a phenomenon? Are we such suckers for beautiful cinematography? Surely not. Or are we so starved for any spiritual ideas in our lives whatsoever, that we can’t recognize cooked material from uncooked? I think perhaps this is close to the answer. Perhaps we have kept ourselves so desperately stranded from the big questions- the meaning of life, religion, morality, God- that even a child-made raft, passing by our desolation, can be hailed by us as our flag-ship.
(Aditya Sudarshan is the author of two novels, A Nice Quiet Holiday (Westland Books, 2009) and Show Me A Hero (Rupa and Co., 2011) and several plays, including The Green Room, winner of the Hindu Metroplus Playwright Award for 2011.)