Contemplative triptych

Print edition : September 06, 2013

A scene from "Ship of Theseus".

Neeraj Kabi as the Jain monk gives a stirring performance.

Anand Gandhi, director of the film. Photo: K. Bhagya Prakash

THE ship of Theseus is as old as conundrums go, harking back to the vessel in which the mythic Greek slayer of the Minotaur sailed. The poser as it was first recorded by Plutarch was: if the planks of the ship were replaced one after the other until nothing of the old timber was left on it, would the ship remain the same? Ancient philosophers, including Heraclitus, Plato and Socrates, took a shot at this riddle, and Hobbes in the 17th century raised the obverse scenario: what if all the old timber of the ship had been saved and used to build another ship? Which would then be the original ship? Variations of this theme have engaged others down the ages.

Now we have a young film-maker, Anand Gandhi, who sets up the paradox afresh as the framework for his film of the same title. In the process, perhaps unknown to himself, he sets off a subset of a paradox himself because the entry point to the film with a loaded title like this is essentially cerebral; but its philosophical overlay seems overwrought and to distract, if not detract, from the three situations portrayed of being and becoming, where the heart and free will, as much as the mind, play decisive roles and where the gestalt is not a sum of the body parts.

The first in the triptych is about a blind young Egyptian photographer and her transformation with a cornea transplant that bestows sight to her. When blind, she is surefooted, instinctive, works within a monochromatic axis of black and white, is drawn by her other sensory faculties—and some electronic jigs attached to her camera that can read off distances—to zero in on her shot, and driven by her keenly cultivated internal rhythm to capture the moment as the vision clicks in her mind. Absence of eyesight virtually invests her frames with a cutting edge. All this dissipates with the corneal transplant and the coming of sight and light in her life, and she finds herself faltering and struggling to cope with the abundance and disorder of what she sees around her.

Thanks to what seems a vague plagiarism charge—that this plot is modelled on another short film of a blind painter and the crisis of creativity that the gift of sight forces on her—Anand Gandhi has volunteered the information that the inspiration behind the character was the blind Slovenian photographer Evegen Bavcar, whose works of, and thoughts on, photography are seminal to an understanding of how the camera mediates between blindness and sight. Bavcar makes a distinction between the visual, as “that which our eyes see”, and the visible, as “that which our mind sees”. The camera view is, for Bavcar, “the gaze of the third eye” and imagining images is existence itself. “I can’t belong to this world,” he says, “if I can’t imagine… in my own way. When a blind person says ‘I imagine’, it means he too has an inner representation of external realities.”

It is no coincidence that the camera images captured by the blind young woman in the film bear a resemblance to those of Bavcar. They are, both, manifestly digital—light sources leave an incandescent trail as the shot is of movement or in movement, the compositions have an oneiric strangeness about them. As an aside, it is interesting to note, in the larger context of the techno-cultural shift from the analogue to the digital, that as part of a write-up on Bavcar (titled “The Blind Photographer”), the psychoanalyst and expert on blind photography Benjamin Mayer Foulkes observes that “the main questions posed by the transition from analog to digital photography can be considered in relation to blindness. While analog photography tends to think of itself as not being blind, digital photography knows itself to be blind and operates accordingly. While analog photography equates the visual and the visible, digital photography presupposes their distinction. While the referents of analog photography appear to be ocular, digital photography demonstrates that pictorial referents are not merely the objects of sight, but essentially the objects of the gaze. In sum, blind photography is digital photography ‘avant la lettre’.”

There is no reason to infer that our blind protagonist with the camera, played with a delicate combination of ruminant restlessness and coiled-spring terseness by the Egyptian actor Aida El-Kashef, may be afflicted by a crisis of identity just because after the corneal graft, to put it rather plainly, she begins seeing with someone else’s eyes. Her dilemma is, rather, one of identification, expression and creativity as she moves from a state of being blind to one of becoming visually enabled. She has, literally, to readjust her sights to the colour and light and forms of the visual external world. Without a history of seeing, it is perhaps a quantum leap into sight and into the attendant problems of adjustment that Oliver Sacks has recounted in his case study (“To See And Not See” in The New Yorker of May 1993) of a middle-aged man he calls Virgil, who had been rendered blind from childhood by a form of complicated cataract; the cataract was surgically removed and he could then see, but he could never relate to his faculty of sight. But this is a different problem and the Theseus paradox seems farfetched in her circumstance.

Monk and his cause

The film leaves her there, grappling with sight, and moves on to the second situation about a young Jain monk, winsomely affable but resolute in his ways, and fighting, even while observing the austerities enjoined on him by his faith, a legal case against experiments involving animals by pharmaceutical companies. When he is diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver and finds that the cure entails a liver transplant and medication using products manufactured by the same companies, he resorts to the ultimate act of “Santhara”, or death by starvation sanctioned by Jainism, but relents in the last minute and decides to submit to the surgery. Again, there are other paradoxes at better work here than that of the film’s title, but by now the overarching intellectual hypothesis no longer nags. We are, we realise, into a resplendent film whose every moment needs to be savoured, irrespective of the theoretical constructs. And it is in this segment of the monk and his cause that the film is at its heart-wrenching best.

The actor and theatre director Neeraj Kabi puts body and soul into the role with devastating effect, stirring us with his infectious warmth, spurring us to keep pace with his hurried strides on his unending karmic path, drawing us into his utterly selfless humaneness, touching us with the poignance of his inner turmoil, and challenging us to behold him as he wastes away into skin and bones before our eyes. The physical, the emotional, the intellectual and the spiritual come together into lived daily routine and banter without ever becoming overtly profound. This stretch of the film is covered with masterly finesse by the director, with the tightly engaging, peripatetic camerawork of Pankaj Kumar to match.

In the third and final act, we pick up the narrative thread in a hospital room where a stockbroker, played by the actor Sohum Shah (who has also produced the film), is recuperating from surgery for a kidney transplant. When he stumbles on a case, in the same hospital, of a poor bricklayer’s kidney being stolen when he was being treated for some other ailment, he wonders and needs to find out whether he was the unwitting recipient. It turns out not, but by now his empathy for the bricklayer’s plight is aroused, and setting aside his single-minded obsession for the stock market, he goes in search of the person who was the beneficiary—a journey that takes him to Stockholm and into an ethical quagmire.

Again, Sohum Shah transits the being-to-becoming curve with a consummate touch of ordinariness. The change in the one-dimensional stock market votary with little that is intellectual or creative to recommend him—the despair of his more cerebrally accomplished grandmother on this count hangs heavy in the air—is subtle and nuanced. In the end, his efforts to get justice for the bricklayer do not quite measure up to his own expectations. But he has actually accomplished a lot and redeemed himself in his grandmother’s eyes.

A casting coup

Sohum Shah, Neeraj Kabi and Aida El-Kashef substantially carry their respective segments on their individual shoulders, but every other character too is flawlessly in place. It is a casting coup rare in Indian cinema. The film has the look and feel of a coverage of three stories that are happening even as the crew engages with them rather than of a scripted plot being directed. All of this, of course, is the vision and execution of Anand Gandhi. It takes guts born of assurance and conviction to make a film like this. The title may be a bit of a philosophical red herring. But then it helps elicit a thinking response to the film which proceeds far beyond the sensory experience and appreciation of it. A straightforward, pared-down narrative structure and style, dialogues that are so true to form for those mouthing them that you think they cannot have a common author, a controlled visual treatment, editing that just about allows space and time for the reflexive, and location sound that adds to the sense of documentation together make for a contemplative film for the seeker as much as for the viewer.

Robust response

Given the set expectations of and from the box office, it is a surprise that the film finds commercial release at all. Even more surprising is the fairly robust response to it in the mainstream film bazaar. Past experience of films like this has been that they shuttle between the shelf and the film festival without access to the theatrical circuit. That may well be changing, as recent experience in some regional cinema indicates. The assumption that our filmgoers are a dumbed-down lot obviously has to be set aside. There will no doubt be the formulaic spectator just as pre-programmed as the formulaic film as long as formulaic films dominate. There were the few deserters of Ship of Theseus too. At different stages, one or two would get up and leave, some of them making obvious their distaste for the unaccustomed sights and sounds to which they were being treated by stomping out. That is when you almost wish, no doubt undemocratically, that there were bouncers at the entrance who would send them right back to their seats for some compulsory educative viewing.