The Unsinkable Ship of Theseus

The Unsinkable Ship of Theseus

A review & a conversation with Kiran Rao.

By Anand Ranganathan

Published on :

The indications aren’t all that good. Flowing tresses and wild beards and Kissinger specs and Fabindia kurtas, and when Arundhati Roy saunters in I have to pinch my upper arm to make sure this isn’t an andolan or a Yojana Bhawan gherao. But they don’t vend coke and popcorns to tortured souls at Yojana Bhawan gatherings – at least not yet (first the toilets, cried the GDP king) – and so a couple of munch ’n sips later the reality of an evening out to the movies is thankfully restored.

The crowd mills around expectantly, exchanging raised-eyebrows-wali greetings and where-the-hell-have-you-been-you-naughty-artist shoulder pats. The air is peppered occasionally with long distance mwahs-mwahs that, although they travel waywardly through ether, never manage to miss their mark. What wretched luck, whispers my bachelor friend accompanying me.

There is still time before one-half of the double-door is flung open with a flourish – it’s always with a flourish and it’s always one-half of the double-door, to provide you with that turnstile feeling, I guess – dhakka-mukki, sweat-wafts, shin-kicks, and then the blundering cattle-like release to the other side, with the torch-bearer keeping a close count of the livestock.

I’ve been invited to a preview screening of Ship of Theseus – a film going on a limited nationwide release this coming Friday – and arrive at the appointed hour after having done my homework, i.e. Wiki-ed for a low-down on this fellow called Theseus. Turns out he was the “founder-king of Athens, son of Aegeus and Poseidon, both of whom queen Aethra had slept with in one night”. Yes, the things Greeks do besides inventing democracy and ruining their economy. Never mind. The story goes that Theseus kidnapped and brought home to his doting mother the famous Helen of Troy, daughter of Zeus and supposedly the most beautiful woman in the world. The vehicle he used for this heist was a ship, the so-called Ship of Theseus which was quickly put on public display for Athenians to gawk at post-abduction. Over centuries, like their much-vaunted civilisation, it went to rot, but its parts – unlike what happens in our own much-vaunted civilisation – were replaced periodically until such time it became impossible for philosophers to hazard a guess as to what was left of the original ship. The Ship of Theseus, thus, is a philosophical paradox that wonders whether an object that has had all its parts replaced still remains fundamentally the same. So much for Wiki and its relentless efforts to educate an Indian on all matters Greek and Latin.

The film Ship of Theseus, as it happens, has got nothing to do with Greek kidnappers and their riveting legends, but rather, three Indian stories that grapple with the eponymous paradox. It is written and directed by Anand Gandhi, who, in introducing the film to us, is defensive about his singular contribution in making saas-bahu serials the rage they are – he wrote the script and dialogues for them for years. A pity, for what makes Ship of Theseus the best film since Kieslowski died is precisely this: that Gandhi is grounded in the reality of Indian emotions – bombastic and contrived though they may seem at times – for him to occasionally fly away to unimaginable heights.

Ask those in the know as to why they consider Ghatak to be more visceral than Ray, Narayan more instinctive than Ghosh. Symbolism is really a stream of Philosophy and to pull it off you need a story to match. Not for nothing did the writer Stefan Zweig, the unparalleled master of describing the Human Condition, consider Mahabharat to be the most wondrous piece of literature ever written. At one level, great art is surprisingly fluid and difficult to pigeon-hole. Stare at a great painting for hours and it transforms magically into a film; lose yourself completely in a great film and you start to imagine it as a book. And behind every great work of art is an artist who realises this. Gandhi is one such man. He should be proud that his unsinkable ship sailed off from the saas-bahu port.

This, if you hadn’t gathered already, is supposed to be a film review of Ship of Theseus – my first film review. Judging by how things are progressing thus far, it may turn out to be my last (“Beta, tumse na ho payega…”). But I assure you all my meanderings are quite deliberate. This is because I’ve never been one for reading film reviews before watching a film. Never. What’s the point? They ruin the experience entirely, and if it’s a thought-provoking film the reviewer for some odd reason decides to transform himself into one of those exalted foreword and introduction writers of famous books. So much so, that before you can scream WTF the entire plot and the high-points of the film stand revealed cruelly in diamond-cut prose.

Yes, I’ve been stung by this review scorpion one too many times – read Peter Bradshaw’s film reviews and Pankaj Mishra’s book introductions if you don’t believe me. It’s like walking backwards on an airport travelator, or reading a Hindi novel thinking all the while that it is written in Arabic. Was it praise or conceit that made Naipaul in his India: A Wounded Civilisation, wrap up in two cruel pages the whole of Ananthamurthy’s utterly brilliant Samskara? In a field as subjective as the Arts there shouldn’t be any helpful nudge or prod, except perhaps a pointer in the form of “Read it!” or “Watch it!” Gist is the death of a salesman. No, always best to discover art-forms on your own, or risk getting duped by purveyors of beautiful yet smug prose.

This is true especially for film reviews. What’s the point in saying “Achtung! Spoilers ahead”, a few lines down your masterpiece – do you not want your readers to read any further, o clever one? Or – you miserable little sadist – you actually do, knowing fully well the frailty of the roving eye?

Sorry, but I want my readers to watch the film, not read it. I want them to be thrilled by the acting, not by my writing. What I can do, though, is encourage a feeling of trust, so that when I bestow stars to a film, they’d trust my judgment and go watch it. This is exactly what I do with Ebert’s or Bradshaw’s reviews. I count the stars – that’s enough information, thank you – and then I go ahead and watch the film. Of course, I always return to read their review just to check where they’ve gone wrong! That said, the cunning plan crumbles when it comes to Indian reviews – especially The Times of India reviews, for they don’t just give stars – oh, no, no, no – they hand out constellations for every motion picture ever made by man or beast. Himmatwala? That’ll be the Ursa Major, sir. Joker? An Orion, we assure you, madam!

Ship of Theseus is being promoted by Kiran Rao, the director of the wonderful and sensitive Dhobi Ghat. Rao is there for the preview screening along with the many actors and producers of the film. In choosing to back Gandhi she may have made the best decision of her life. A genius filmmaker needs a patron as much as he needs a story. The Hindi film industry’s primary goal is to make money, lots of it, and there is little room for manoeuvre for artists like Gandhi. They can become history in the blink of an eye. Kiran has a difficult job ahead.

But in a nation where cinema continues to be the harbinger of relief from the daily drudgery and horrors for so many, is there space for cinema that is essentially an outpouring of an artist’s philosophy, i.e. removed from the role that our films usually provide to millions? I ask her this.

“I used to think”, says Kiran, “when I was young that rather than work in the arts I should do more serious, ‘useful’ work in the social sector. But I realised soon that what people need – as much as food – is culture. I think the artist’s role is that of a medium or a healer, making sense of the world around us. In a country like ours with such enormous disparities and unhappy circumstances, it’s probably even more necessary for us to have artists who ask the difficult questions, who hold a mirror to society. Instead, nowadays, the artist’s role has been reduced to a jester, distracting and diverting us rather than helping us engage with our world better. It is time we had cinema that caters to the mind as well as the heart, cinema that takes on deeper questions and debates, and that truly reflects who we are and what we may be becoming.”

Strange as it may seem, The Ship of Theseus is a literary tour-de-force, a marvellous book in its own right. Very few recent Indian films are capable of blurring the line – the Bengali film Dekha is one that comes to mind. Ship falls in the same category. There is intense, sometimes over-powering symbolism, not only in what the camera is capturing but also in the long periods of silence, as deliberate as the cold and sparse prose in Chatwin’s In Patagonia. The viewer sees everything through Gandhi’s eyes – and it helps that the stories are grounded in Indian emotions; devoid of this, the artistic expression of debating a philosophical paradox can soon lend itself to lampooning of the artist, just as how many of Borges’ writings leave the reader bemused and irritated, “intellectual jokes” as a critic once termed these dazzling stories.

How much of a writer is ultimately reflected in his writings, is what I am getting at. Or should he be reflected at all? Books such as The Guide, or films such as Umberto D. or Subarnarekha or Garam Hawa are not rich in philosophical allegory or literary emphasis and yet…

“It’s an interesting question”, says Kiran, “and one that I’m not sure I have a complete answer to. A writer gravitates towards material that interests and excites him or her, and so the choice of subject or the way it is handled is always quite telling about the writer. How much it reflects a writer’s own opinion or perspective is debatable, and really depends on the kind of work it is, and the integrity with which the writer has approached it.”

Leaving aside the astounding artistry of Gandhi, Ship of Theseus is noteworthy in one other aspect: it has introduced to us an actor the likes of whom hasn’t been seen in Indian cinema for decades – Sohum Shah. If the film deserves five stars, then this man deserves at least a constellation. Or better, let a constellation be named in his honour so other actors can look up and admire his brilliance from time to time.

“It is my opinion that Ship of Theseus is certainly the best film I’ve seen in a very long time, and more than deserves to be our entry at the Oscars”, says Kiran.

I couldn’t agree more. Problem is, we are very particular about hiding our best work from the rest of the world.