DIRECTED BY ANAND GANDHI
STARRING: SOHUM SHAH, NEERAJ KABI, AIDA ELKASHEF, AMBA SANYAL, FARAZ KHAN, VINAY SHUKLA, SAMEER KHURANA, SUNIP SEN, VIPUL BINJOLA, MANOJ SHAH, RAMNIK PAREKH and YASHWANT WASNIK
I do not know what Anand Gandhi won many a heart with. But I can tell you about what captured mine in his ‘Ship of Theseus’, a two and a half hour thesis that has a last act that, in my opinion, wins it for the writer-director. For this, I will have to write in detail about what the last act had to offer, or, for that matter, the entire film perhaps, which means you will have to excuse me for revealing more than I ought to. But then I have a shrewd idea that you might have watched the film already and, for that reason, it might be safe after all for me to ‘spoil’ it for you.
Navin (Sohum Shah) watches the stock-market when he is not watching over his grandmother. The story begins with him pondering over stocks with a surgical mask on his face and a needle at the back of his hand as his doctor tells him his cretanin levels are back to normal. He has just had his kidney replaced. Navin speaks everyman Hindi, has a goofball friend and a grandmother who believes that we exist to do some good to society. Struck by all the activism that seems to be happening around him – which has been there in his lineage – Navin neither knows how to digest it all, nor how he could add to the legacy.
With Navin, we are introduced to a cultural, as well as a moral dilemma. There is a conversation that he has with his grandmother on the language he speaks and the music he listens to/appreciates before she fractures her leg. There is the other fiercer one he has as she is bed-ridden, where he tries to defend his need to be compassionate. While he defines his compassion in a detail as small as his inclination to take care of her, his grandmother goes as far as to ask him what he has sought to give back to society. To her, his – or anyone’s – existence is defined by how much he makes himself valuable to society. This commitment looks beyond the paradigm of right and wrong, she says.
This is where the beauty in the very definition of Navin comes in. In the scene where he is introduced, he changes from an overall into a light pink shirt with a vest under it, takes off his surgical mask to show some neatly-trimmed facial hair, a pair of very subtle and formal-looking glasses whose case he carries around in his shirt pocket. Without doubt, you notice that it is bifocals that he wears – which, for those who have seen their dads age in front of them, is household stuff. So is the spectacle case. It is a light shade of gold, perhaps with a hint of brown in it, with a clip to hold it to a shirt pocket. Ahead of the Bajaj Chetak or the Hyundai Santro later on, it is best representative of the aging Indian middle-class.
What he is also accused of is the apathy that is characteristic of the same. Navin is not the man on the wrong side of the struggle. He is the one who wasn’t supposed to be there in the first place. His struggle even with himself has the awkwardness of a person who, to put it simply, wishes he wasn’t there having to handle it. His walk is mechanical, his shoulders droop. Even if not emphasized, one could be sure he drags his feet. Had Matthew Broderick played his role, he would have had midlife crisis written all over his face, but Anand Gandhi does well in not insinuating it as much. Navin wakes up in the middle of the night at the hospital to the wails of a woman. Her husband, a construction worker by the name of Shankar (Yashwant Wasnik), has had his appendicitis operation done by a quack, who had also taken a kidney alongside the rudimentary organ. If a man can live without his appendix, he could do so without a kidney as well, right? Navin sends his friend to find out a little more. Several flights of stairs later, he returns with details on Shankar’s blood group and the fact that he has had his kidney removed on the 16th of that month. Navin had had his transplant done on the 17th.
There begins the quest for redemption. Navin is the kind of guy who would not want to find himself in the wrong. He fears the kidney he had received might be the one that was stolen from Shankar. His investigation takes him to as far as Stockholm after he realizes, beyond reasonable doubt, that he hasn’t been an unconscious part of the profiteering business. He seeks to track dear Shankar’s kidney, which takes him to the doorstep of a Swedish man in Stockholm, who admits to having not known well enough the sources of the kidney he had received, in what is perceivably the funniest sequence I’ve seen in any recent Indian film. It also increased the faith I had in Mr. Gandhi’s abilities as a writer-director, whom I had accused for two-thirds of the film as someone who takes himself a little too seriously.
I shall not tell you what happens of Navin’s efforts to reclaim poor Shankar’s kidney. If he could fly all the way to Stockholm to see what he could do about it, I’m sure you could make it to a movie theatre to find out what happened to his quest, and yes, it does seem like I’m indirectly recommending you to watch the film, only adding to the overwhelming amount of PR mileage it already has. Let me tell you that it is not entirely untrue either. The segment featuring Navin and his little hitchhike across the globe is the best thing about the film that, at one point, accuses itself (and the respectable Maitreya) of intellectual masturbation. While the other two masts of this ‘Ship of Theseus’ have their sails flying a tad too high, that of Navin is the right height to gather good wind. Navin could be your brother, Navin could be your Father; he could even be you. He is the man who knows his predicament but isn’t equipped enough to handle it. And therein lies a further predicament – one that shall never be overcome.
Past the kidney racket, Navin makes his way to a screening of a few videos of his donor whom, he learns, was a cave-explorer who had met with an untimely death. His case is so exceptional that not only had he donated eight different organs to eight different people (because seven, I suspect, is a number that has already been taken by the Will Smith movie), he had also ensured three of them would have remarkable enough stories that could set sail on the ‘Ship of Theseus’. There is Aliya (Aida Elkashef), the blind photographer who, literally, ‘plays by the ear’ having lost her sight to a cornea infection. There is the Gandhian resurrect in Maitreya (Neeraj Kabi) who, unlike his obvious inspiration, gives up on his ideals. He is an atheist monk who believes in causality and the existence of the soul. A firm anti-animal-testing stance leaves him without options to medicate himself against his liver cirrhosis. The doctor says he needs a transplant. He chooses to let death happen instead. In all his emphasis on preserving the ‘self’ in much the same way that Gandhi had refused allopathic cure, Maitreya incites the argumentative Charvaka (Vinay Shukla) who, out of sheer love for the Guru and an interest to prolong his life, describes to him the meaninglessness of one’s ‘identity’ in the first place. There are more bacteria in the body than there are human cells. Who knows where the body ends and the environment begins?
By not talking too much about the first two segments, I am not putting them down. I am merely choosing to not explain even further a couple of segments that have already been over-explained with too much dialogue that is written out like cues to an interview. In its defence, ‘Ship of Theseus’ is self-professed dualist. It is only reasonable to have its lines play out in a dialectic. But that does not excuse the fact that ‘Ship of Theseus’ tries to tell its whole life story, plank by plank, each question leading to the next, with a collection of postcards that desperately needed displaying; or so the editor seems to have felt. Mr. Gandhi writes his signature on these shots that do as much as popcorn does to your movie experience, but I think it takes a few minutes into the third segment for one to realize his ability to provide depth, detail and earnestness to an average human being in an average surrounding as he attempts the remarkable. In depicting his futile exercise, and in the big existential joke he could make out of it, Mr. Gandhi redeems himself, at least in my mind’s eye.
The ending of ‘Ship of Theseus’ warrants a discussion in itself. I have given it away in an earlier part of my review. Let me give you a little more. The eight recipients watch a video of their donor exploring a cave. There is no voiceover, there is minimal sound. To us in the audience, it shows nothing of significance. But we see these people moved to tears; every single one of them – even Navin, our very own Captain Awkward. At that, I found myself transported to a very similar sequence in a film that I need not even name. Toto watches the film-reel in his private theatre at the end of ‘Cinema Paradiso’. By itself, it is a collection of kissing scenes that have been edited out from some films; perhaps about as meaningless as the cave video. To him, however, it is magic.
‘Ship of Theseus’ does not recreate that magic. And that does not mean it is not a meritorious film. It is perhaps the first time that India has gotten to see a film give this much of an emphasis to shot taking and film production. It also serves to revolutionize film distribution in India - a business model many would be likely to follow. These are merits that deserve mention. What Anand Gandhi, however, doesn’t or perhaps couldn’t do is keep the high-headedness out of a film that could have been much more effective had he not tried so hard. I’m reminded of a Jack Kerouac quote a friend once shared. “One day, I will find the right words. And they will be simple.” Soham Shah will smile in agreement. The rest is what the young Charvaka accused Maitreya of doing – it is intellectual masturbation, and is doomed to be so.