Starring Aida El Kashef, Neeraj Kabi, Sohum Shah, Faraz Khan, Vinay Shukla, and Amba Sanyal
Written and directed by Anand Gandhi
Note: This review is based on a rough edit of Ship of Theseus. The final run time and story order has since changed.
On Monday I was lucky enough to catch a preview screening of Ship of Theseus at the Projection Booth in Toronto. Theseus will be screening at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in just a few days, and is part of the City to City program which this year is highlighting movies out of Mumbai, India. Written and directed by Anand Gandhi, who began an early career writing soaps and theatre, Theseus is his feature debut which ambitiously takes on some of the hardest questions that life poses.
The narrative follows three separate characters: a monk with very strong core beliefs who is currently involved on the humanistic side of an animal rights court case, a young woman who has recently become blind as the result of a cornea infection and now remarkably spends her time as a borderline professional photographer, and finally a young stock broker who seems oblivious to the world around him. We spend a lot of time with each of these characters, their stories presented in succession rather than interspersed throughout the film. Finally as a treat for North American audiences, we also get the opportunity to drink in some of the very different scenery found throughout Mumbai.
Before discussing the film I should mention that the version I watched was a workprint with unprocessed images and sound. The version at TIFF will be complete, but I found the workprint to be very watchable. With a film like Ship of Theseus it is very difficult to review it without discussing the major themes, this is turn leads to MAJOR SPOILERS. Also, there is so much substance in Theseus that I might forgo my usual discussion of photography, acting, etc. in favour of discussing the ideas present throughout the narrative.
The title of the film refers to a philosophical paradox: if an old ship has each of its component parts replaced one by one, until every part has been replaced, is it still fundamentally the same ship? If the answer is no, then when did it stop being the old ship and become something different? This paradox can be applied to anything that is a collection of parts, including the human body. Throughout Theseus each of the main characters reaches a point where they require an organ transplant, with the exception of the young stockbroker who has acquired a new kidney just before we are introduced to him. Given the title of the film, Gandhi clearly would like us to think about the nature of identity and what it means to be ‘us’, to be an individual. Unfortunately I found this central theme of the Theseus to be rather puerile.
With all that we know about the brain and how much of it still remains a mystery, it’s hard to imagine any other organ in our body contributing in any meaningful way to an overall definition of ‘self’. We certainly feel attached to our bodies, and would hate to lose any part of them, but to suggest that a kidney or an eye contributes to our sense of individuality beyond a superficial level is a rather uninteresting concept. Theseus discusses the soul, and specific organs, but skips discussing the brain, the most important organ of all and the seat of the ‘self’ – a real shame considering the otherwise intelligent script.
Fortunately Theseus has a much more interesting theme that takes the front row in the monk’s story, and is present in the background of the other two stories: personal beliefs. Throughout the film most viewers should find themselves identifying with the beliefs of some characters, while becoming increasingly frustrated by the beliefs of others. Gandhi has done a remarkable job putting together a cast of characters who will openly challenge each other, even during crisis situations. The beliefs of the characters are never simply respected and tip-toed around – it would be nice to see more of this in the real world. If the characters in Theseus teach us anything it is that flexibility and self-doubt are modern day virtues which allow us make those important decisions that often need to be made.
I didn’t love the film as I walked out of the theatre, but I have been impressed with its incredible staying power. It has been over 72 hours since I watchd the film and it’s still resonating in my brain for one reason of another. Ship of Theseus provokes us to question the beliefs we hold most dear, while at the same time humbling us, as our individual comprehension of the universe can never be more illuminating than a flashlight cutting through the darkness.