by Angelo Muredda The feature debut of Indian playwright (and occasional soap writer) Anand Gandhi, Ship of Theseus puts its dramaturgical origins up front. Gandhi's film begins with a philosophical conceit from Plutarch--the question of whether a ship that's been repaired using parts from other vessels can be considered the same ship at all--and workshops it through three seemingly-disconnected stories set in modern-day Mumbai. All three strands, which unfold like a series of one-act plays, are preoccupied with the biological analogy of Theseus's broken-down ship, a leaky body that needs an organ transplant to survive. And while the finale that brings them together is unnecessarily tidy, the individual segments strike a fine balance between humanism and intellectual rigor.
Though there are some technical blips that lend the film an unfinished feel, this is generally strong work for a neophyte. What's impressive is how each story addresses the marching orders of the central paradox without sacrificing characterization. It would have been easy, for instance, to bungle the opening portrait of Aaliya (Aida El-Kashef), a blind photographer whose artistic process involves shooting by instinct and developing the finished work through a multi-step process of vectorizing and etching the image after her boyfriend gives an account of what he sees in it. One pre-emptively cringes when she appears, given the classically-inflected title, worrying that she'll be used as Tiresias the blind seer reincarnated in Mumbai. It's a relief, then, that her art is presented not as second-sighted action photography so much as translation. Its reliance on contingent factors as disparate as her boyfriend's feedback and the voiceover technology built into her camera makes a case for how thoroughly prosthetics are already embedded into contemporary ways of seeing, let alone recording things. In other words, her disability isn't rendered equivalent to an old ship's rotten board but naturalized as part of a larger worldview that sees interdependence as central to identity formation and even work, at least in city life.
Gandhi takes Aaliya's aesthetic ideology seriously, as he does the religious objections to imbibing medicine put forth by dying monk Maitreya (Neeraj Kabi) in the second section, and the moral quandary of aloof stock-trader and organ recipient Naveen (Sohum Shah) in the third and probably trickiest. You could make the case that Naveen's segment, the most substantial in narrative terms, warranted its own film rather than its hasty incorporation here, and certainly it's not obvious that all three stories needed to be woven together in the conventional manner Gandhi settles on in order to make the point that Enlightenment ideas about the upright individual don't hold much water. Still, this is a thought-provoking film, rather like a lost, minor-key work from the comparatively bombastic Krzysztof Kieślowski. Programme: City to City