Ship of Theseus (2013)
There’s a moment in Anand Gandhi’s Ship of Theseus when a young legal intern in the middle of a long didactic spiel, hesitatingly asks an ailing monk who refuses to take medicine because of his principled objection to animal testing, that if monks are celibate then why this ‘intellectual masturbation’? I wasn’t sure whether to laugh—Here was a man dying of liver cirrhosis accompanied by a well-founded and entirely convincing principled opposition to animal testing, a boy sufficiently old, wise and previously chastised to realise that his offhand and childish attempts at making him rethink his principle wouldn’t work (he had earlier ludicrously compared the monk to a terrorist because he was non-consensually inflicting harm on others) and a director perceptive enough to grasp that at a crucial moment of the film story-wise, an interminable faux professorial monologue by an upstart infused with quips of this nature were grossly-ill timed. If it was meant to be funny, I didn’t get the joke. At the same time I wasn’t sure whether it was making a deeper philosophical point. After all for an average Bollywood movie-goer like me, watching a critically acclaimed offbeat film, makes me doubly aware of my own inadequacies in failing to grasp fundamental philosophical propositions which suitably erudite viewers would appreciate before one could say ‘Plato’ and would have several deeper tropes of enquiry regarding before one could get anywhere near saying ‘Aristotle’. Was the director trying to make us think, I nervously asked myself, whether indeed ‘celibacy’ widely understood as abstinence from sex, includes abstinence from masturbation, a unilateral attempt at replicating aspects of the sexual act, despite not being sex itself?
While this second-order question itself is an interesting one, it is beside the point. For me, the legal intern’s question was symptomatic of a film that, like a trainee lawyer whose mind is filled with half-baked thoughts, is fundamentally unsure of the questions that it is asking. This is not to suggest even for a moment that I wanted easy answers or resolutions at the end of the movie so that I could go back home feeling vindicated much like I did after watching Dabangg. Quite to the contrary, my expectation was more modest— the questions that the movie-makers wanted us to think about, the ones that its characters and the stories were attempting to develop through their own journeys and complexities, should have been clearly depicted and more powerfully etched. As it was, at the end of the movie, I was walking down the steps of the theatre towards the exit with a bewildering array of muddled thoughts which congealed into a serene nothingness as I stepped outside. It’s been a day since and twenty-fours have only concretised the extant nothingness, neither clarifying the deep philosophical questions that the movie is meant to be asking nor striking a delayed emotional chord through the three personal stories the movie tries to tell. And before you say that muddled thoughts are good and making me think about random questions such as the definition of celibacy is itself testament to the intellectual prowess of the movie, let me just say this— a bad argument doesn’t become a good one because it confuses you and makes you think why it doesn’t work.
Problematically, the philosophical premise of the film which lends it its title is the ship of Theseus paradox, is a category error (Henceforth, I use Ship of Theseus to refer to the movie and ship of Theseus to refer to the paradox). In philosophy, the ship of Theseus has been a long-standing paradox because the question of identity of the ship each of whose planks was removed and replaced by other planks, could be seen as contingent either on the continuity of form (the argument was that though its planks were removed, the new planks put together constitute the same ship because it had the same form) or the identity of original parts (this issue was made acute by Thomas Hobbes who put forward the situation that the old planks were put together to make another ship, which arguably was identical with the original ship of Theseus). Today, it is widely acknowledged that continuity of form is a sufficient and non-defeasible condition of identity. It is specifically non-defeasible in relation to the identity of parts condition.
Irrespective of the philosophical merits of the view (see here and here for more on this), the question of identity is an issue for the ship of Theseus because of complete disassembly and consequent replacement. This question of complete disassembly does not arise in the situation presented by Ship of Theseus at all. The closest we come to such disassembly is when we are told at the climax that it was a single brain dead hobbyist cave explorer, eight of whose body parts were now donated to others. But in this case there was no replacement of these parts because the donor was dead. On the contrary, where there was replacement, in the bodies of the three protagonists, there is no disassembly. For example, if you give your watch whose minute hand is broken for repair, and the minute hand is replaced by the repairer, because of the replacement of a minute hand, the watch does not lose its identity. Since it maintains the continuity of form it is still your watch. So if the ship of Theseus had only one plank changed with another it wouldn’t have been the paradox that it is today. On the contrary, if The Ship of Theseus, had a few planks changed, well…
What is most baffling is that irrespective of the questionable philosophical premise, the treatment of the actual changes that are caused by the organ donations in the lives of the protagonists is surprisingly slipshod. The first track of the blind photographer was pregnant with possibility about how vision changed her identity. But apart from a scene where she wilfully blindfolds herself to find inspiration and the final scene where she seems to have finally found some visual inspiration, this possibility is left largely unexplored, perhaps even sacrificed for the sake of an overly intricate character development. The third track, where such change in identity is dealt with head on as a kidney recipient makes a forced kidney recipient’s struggle for justice his own, loses steam, trying to grapple with too many incidental issues—the kidney racket in India, the familiar tale of the poor and their satisfaction with material well-being as opposed to real justice (perhaps unwittingly portrayed as a plaything of the rich) and the use of large amounts of money as a means to assuage guilt. Most bafflingly, the second track of the ascetic, beautifully shot, does not deal with the question of change and identity at all curiously stopping with the monk’s equally baffling volte face to suddenly agree to a liver transplant when the set up led you to believe that he was fasting unto death. Perhaps it’s best to leave questions of petty causality out when discussing a movie that deals with big philosophical tropes.
More than the movie which left me intellectually dissatisfied, the parroting of the movie’s supposedly path-breaking philosophical enquiries by large numbers of go-to movie reviewers, left me deeply doubtful of the quality and competence of the professional movie reviewing class in India. While certainly, I take no objection to the fact that personally they may have found the film tasteful, beautifully shot and worthy of compliment (though I’m very inclined to saying that they’re entitled to their opinions but they’re wrong), to call it ‘brimming with sharp and original interpretations of age-old philosophy (Mint), ‘a richly emotional, intellectual and sensory experience’ (CNN-IBN) and ‘one of the finest Indian films of recent times’ (NDTV), is inexplicable without casting substantial doubt about their own calibre. Perhaps I’m being too uncharitable and each of them may be right in some way- Ship of Theseus is brimming with original interpretations of age-old philosophy except that such interpretations are plainly flawed, which is why they are original; it is a richly emotional, intellectual and sensory experience, which made me feel emotionally indifferent, which in turn led to an intellectual enquiry (indifference is surely an emotion, or is it not?), which in turn led to a strong sensory urge without which my humble intellect cannot function: Hunger. (This in turn, led to another question as to whether hunger despite being not one of the five senses we’re taught can actually be a ‘sensory’ urge(?) and thus the virtuous cycle of emotion, intellect and sensory experience continued). And finally, this actually may be one of the finest Indian films of recent times that the NDTV reviewer had seen, which is not testimony to how good Ship of Theseus is but just how bad the other movies he has the singular misfortune to watch and review are. That the universality of praise in these inexplicably over-the-top reviews had something to do with the fact that the film had won widespread international recognition and was cleverly marketed as an offbeat, low-budget film that you must praise if you want to be seen socially as a cultured, thinking reviewer is a hard conclusion to dismiss. As is the conclusion that the professional reviewer in India needs to develop balls, or at least some brains, though a combination of both would hopefully not be asking for too much.
In a new India where people are more attracted to Twitter than literature, T-20 cricket than test matches and mindless Bollywood than serious cinema, with the Ship of Theseus Anand Gandhi boldly tries to reverse this trend. For this he must be widely applauded. He is undoubtedly a director of great potential, with a wonderful eye and a propensity to think deeply about things around him. Unfortunately in translating these skills to celluloid, he tries too hard to win our hearts with human stories while tickling our brains with purported philosophical paradoxes. In the process of attempting to win both heart and head, Gandhi gets stuck somewhere in between—like an unsavoury taste in the mouth.