Ship of Theseus: Tokyo Review

Ship of Theseus Still - H 2012

Ship of Theseus Still - H 2012

A triptych from India that stays afloat under the weight of some heavy philosophizing.   

Aida El-Kashef, Neeraj Kabi and Sohum Shah star as organ transplant recipients who question their identity in Mumbai-born playwright Anand Gandhi’s debut feature film.

TOKYO -- Contemplative and densely layered, the Mumbai-set film Ship of Theseus, featuring a trio of disparate tales wrapped around a central philosophical paradox, demands rather than invites a thinking audience.

It’s an ambitious outing for a first-time feature and, despite some unadventurous editing and an occasionally too-talky script, young playwright-turned-filmmaker Anand Gandhi should be commended for his commitment to intellectual truth-seeking.

The Fortissimo Films title, which had its world premiere recently in Toronto and is screening in competition at the Tokyo International Film Festival, will be a tough sell commercially but it has already given Gandhi’s filmmaking career a fillip, with Shekhar Kapur (Elizabeth) declaring himself a fan, and it’s assured of smooth sailing around the festival circuit.

The Ship of Theseus refers to a classical problem that explores what makes up an individual’s identity over time. As described by the Greek philosopher Plutarch, it refers to an ancient paradox in which the Athenians replaced each rotting plank in the ship of Theseus until none of the original planks were left, posing the question: was it, then, the same ship? Ghandi’s heavily symbolic film replaces planks with body parts, probing the subject of identity and change through the experience of three organ transplant recipients.

In the opening segment, Aida El-Kashef, daughter of the late Egyptian director Radwan El-Kashef and a filmmaker herself, plays Aliya, a blind art photographer who relies on intuition, her camera’s inbuilt voiceover technology and input from her boyfriend to create her strong, black-and-white images. She moves through Mumbai confident and assured, snapping away by instinct, until a corneal implant restores her sight and she finds herself struggling to adjust to a new way of working.

The renowned theatre actor Neeraj Kabi carries the central, most affecting parable with intelligence and poise. His ascetic monk Maitreya is a staunch animal rights activist who, upon discovering he has cirrhosis of the liver, is offered a transplant and life-saving medication. When he discovers the medicines have been tested on animals, he refuses all help and proceeds to withdraw from the world much to the horror of Charvaka (Vinay Shukla), a young lawyer who chastises him for sacrificing his life for “a thought experiment.”

Naveen (Sohum Shah, hot off his debut in the gangster movie Baabarr) is a hotshot Mumbai stockbroker and the recipient of a donated kidney. Learning of a man who has had his kidney stolen after going into hospital for an appendectomy, he sets off down the rabbit hole into a world of illicit organ trafficking.

Each of these well-acted, apparently disconnected stories uses sturdy characterization to form pieces of an overarching paradigm questioning the nature of self-identity and championing flexibility of beliefs.

Gandhi, who has two well-regarded short films to his credit (Right Here Right Now and Continuum, co-directed with Khushboo Ranka), has a more holistic view of his home city than that popularized by Slumdog Millionaire: there are slums, sure, but the teeming city also hosts a growing middle class.

Shooting digitally on a modest budget, Gandhi and cinematographer Pankaj Kumar, who uses a desaturated palette studded with occasional flashes of breath-taking visual poetry, give us a sense of the great city as an entity unto itself, further blurring the line between individual and environment.

Cast: Neeraj Kabi, Sohum Shah, Aida Elkashef, Faraz Khan
Production companies: Recyclewala Films, Fortissimo Films
Writer-director: Anand Gandhi
Producers: Mukesh Shah, Sohum Shah
Executive producer: Mitesh Shah
Director of photography: Pankaj Kumar
Production designers: Rakesh Yadav, Pooja Shetty
Editors: Adesh Prasad, Sanyukta Kaza, Satchit Puranik, Reka Lemhenyi
Composers: Naren Chandavarkar, Benedict Taylor
Sales: Fortissimo Films
No rating, 139 minutes