'Ship of Theseus': Different fragments, one life

Review: The Indian film, featured at the 2014 Syracuse International Film Festival, asks philosophical questions and presents beautifully orchestrated answers.

In ancient Greece, a ship became reason for much confusion. The Ship of Theseus, a thirty-oar structure, had been preserved for a long time. Then decay lead to a restoration process, where its old, sagging parts were replaced one by one.

Philosophers posed a valid question — if each part of the old vehicle is now something new, does it still remain the original Ship of Theseus? This thought experiment lies at the core of Anand Gandhi’s film of the same name, which screened at the Syracuse International Film Festival last weekend.

A blind woman takes to photography when she loses her ability to see. She makes spectacular images. She trusts her inner eye. Gandhi, through the use of intricate dialogue and detailed camera shots, shows the world as it appears to the blind as they touch it and feel it.

Actress Aida Elkashef dons the walk and the talk of a blind woman with ease. In one scene, she looks straight toward the camera, her white, infected cornea exposed. But even though they blot her face, making her look peculiar, it seems as though she has something special that we can never have.

Technology has enabled people like her to detect color, understand light and depth, set up her camera and produce the images that she wants to take. The same technology also allows her to undergo an operation. She gets a donor and soon she can see again.

“You didn't sign up for this,” her husband remarks. She only realizes the meaning of his words later.

She is so overwhelmed by the sense of sight that she is unable to make a single good photograph. Where she found her muse in the backyard, she now plans trips to find inspiration in the exotic. Gandhi asks: Is her Ship of Theseus dead?

The film changes gear and focuses on another character, an ascetic who fights for animal rights. He believes in the equal existence of all beings, even a centipede, which may appear insignificant to many giant human feet that can easily squash it. He picks up the insect and places it on a leaf.

Gandhi weaves many such scenes in the film’s narrative that etch the character and the circumstance without any further explanation.

However, contradiction, which is the catalyst of this film, steps in. The man, fighting a legal battle to end the cruelty against animals used in lab experiments, finds out that he suffering from liver cirrhosis.

He has taken a vow to never eat medicines churned out of torture chambers, so he refuses to undergo treatment. He decides to end his life by refusing to eat anything.

However, one of his disciples asks him if this is not violence against himself. If experiments are conducted on a few lab rats, then is it not with the aim of reducing suffering of many?

In the end, when the pain gets unbearable, the ascetic gives in. Gandhi’s direction and use of contradictory moments like this one push the audience to don their thinking caps.

Gandhi’s film now shifts its gaze to the life of an ordinary stockbroker who accidentally uncovers organ trafficking.

The man has just had a kidney transplant, thanks to someone who was kind enough to donate his organs. But he finds himself in a fix when he suspects that his kidney might be stolen.

Whether or not that might be the case is unimportant. The doubt urges him to help a poor laborer whose kidney was stolen. The stockbroker who was earlier unwilling to move a muscle for any social cause travels to another country to find the culprit.

In the end, money settles the matter for the poor man, who doesn't wish to have his organ back when his perpetrator promises to pay him for his loss. He now wonders: Is human life so cheap?

A scene where the stockbroker and his friend are trying to convince the laborer to fight for his rights and not settle for money, and where the poor man is running away into the labyrinths of the slum — pathways so narrow that he physically gets stuck — is a vivid cinematic depiction of poverty by Gandhi.

Poverty is shrewd, her character serpentine, inhuman, self-defeating.

The last segment of the film is equally poignant. All the characters that received organ donations — the blind woman, the ascetic and the stockbroker — have assembled for a movie screening organized by a non-government organization. All the organs, all parts of the Ship of Theseus, are in one room in different bodies.

Then the ship becomes one body through a film made by the man who donated his organs after death. He was a mountaineer who filmed during his expeditions.

The film’s symbolic structure can be lost to an audience looks at these three stories and the visual imagery as standalone pieces of art. The organs serve as a connecting link.

As we see the camera zooming into caves, it uncovers greater depths. The tunnel of the cave emerges from the dark end and we begin to understand how it twists and turns. Perhaps the only way to understand life is to learn how to climb through the cave.

Thanks for the wonderful

Thanks for the wonderful review, Varuni. Cheers.

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