Review: ‘Ship of Theseus’

Directed by Anand Gandhi
Written by Anand Gandhi, Pankaj Kumar, Kushboo Rhanka
Starring Aida Al Kashef, Neeraj Kabi, Sohum Shah, Yashwant Wasnik

What if a damaged ship were repaired, piece-by-piece, until not a scrap of the ship’s original material remained? Would it still be the same ship? And what if the original material were used to build a new ship? Would that ship actually be the original one? It’s a nearly two thousand-year-old old thought experiment—one from which Anand Gandhi’s 2013 film ‘Ship of Theseus’ draws its title. The film takes the form of three separate vignettes set in Mumbai, India, all of them—appropriately enough, given the film’s title—involving organ transplantation.

Ship_of_Theseus_PosterThe first segment centers on Aliya (Aida Al Kashef), a young woman awaiting a corneal transplant who manages to pursue photography despite her blindness. The second focuses on Maitreya (Neeraj Kabi), a Jain monk and animal rights activist who must decide whether to accept a lifesaving liver transplant, ignoring his fierce opposition to modern medicine, which relies on inhumane experimentation on animals.  The third follows Navin (Sohum Shah), a stockbroker and recent kidney recipient who tries to help the impoverished Shankhar (Yashwant Wasnik) recover the kidney that was stolen from him at a shady hospital during routine appendicitis surgery. All three segments deal with themes of growth and renewal, and the internal struggle between living for oneself and living for one’s principles.

Like so much of the film’s philosophizing, the Ship of Theseus metaphor is overly on-the-nose. It is also a deeply imperfect analogy to the film’s themes. Gandhi’s film is about change and renewal, not wholesale replacement. If those ancient builders had replaced only a single porthole on Theseus’s ship, the thought experiment would have been much easier to solve.  Likewise, people don’t become wholly different individuals when their corneas or livers or kidneys are replaced.

The film succeeds best when it gets away from such grand, pretentious ideas—often articulated through eye-rollingly undramatic philosophical dialogue—and explores its themes of individual growth and social responsibility through its characters’ decisions and actions. When, say, Aliya, after regaining her vision, wails that her recent photographs are awful, her story feels like a blatant academic treatise on the difficulty of maintaining one’s artistic principles and capabilities in the face of personal change. It’s no shock that her segment, which focuses heavily on discussions of art and artists but eschews dramatic stakes almost entirely, is the weakest.

While all of the vignettes drag, the latter two mine rich thematic territory about the push-and-pull between self-concern and social responsibility. At times, both segments portray these themes dramatically instead of through static dialogue. The second vignette hits its stride when the Jain monk Maitreya is diagnosed with liver cirrhhosis and told that he needs a transplant. Fiercely opposed to modern medicine’s reliance on animal testing, he chooses to “fast unto death,” starving himself instead of embracing the life-saving procedure.  Maitreya’s alarming physical decay is visceral and effective—in part because he is a likable character, but more so because the film dramatizes his beliefs and inner conflicts rather than verbally feeding them to the audience. Likewise, Navin’s story in the final segment—arguably the strongest of the three—is effective because he takes actions instead of just talking. He travels to the ends of the earth to track down poor Shankhar’s stolen kidney, and through his actions the film arrives at poignant themes of altruism and community, as well as the limitations of social responsibility. As Navin tries to help, he learns that he cannot force others to accept the help that he wants to offer.

In all three vignettes, “Ship of Theseus” suffers from dull pacing as its lofty dialogue bogs down the drama. But the film succeeds when its characters’ difficult decisions and actions flesh out its complex social themes. As far as human beings are concerned, “Ship of Theseus” comes down firmly on one side of its titular parable:  People can be remade and undergo change, and at the same time maintain their own convictions and individuality.

David Teich

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