The independent Indian film Ship of Theseus, by Anand Ghandi, screening in the Emerging Directors section at the Panorama of the European Film, relays three interrelated stories that discuss profound philosophical questions.
Through highly captivating images, the three stories unfold to reveal life’s hidden beauty, paradoxes, and the intricate relationship between the body and one's inner psychology.
In each story, the protagonist is faced with a physical ailment that drives them through inner turmoil to deep reflection. There is Aaliya, played by Egyptian young filmmaker Aida El-Kashef, a blind photographer questioning what makes good art, Maitreya played by Neeraj Kabi, a monk battling for animal rights, and Navin played by Sohum Sha, a young stockbroker who just had a kidney transplant.
The transition between the three stories is smoothly and intelligently executed, without giving a clear-cut indication that a new story is beginning. This enhances the connectedness of the stories to emphasise the film’s title, Ship of Theseus, derived from the philosophy of Plutarch in the late 1st century, questioning whether a ship is the same if each of its wooden parts is replaced.
The depth of the film’s theme resonates within the multifaceted, well-developed and evolving characters.
In the first sequence, Aliya, an Egyptian blind photographer living in India, captures pictures driven by her wonder at the sounds and textures around her. However, when she regains her sight she realises that she has lost her artistic touch and tries to reenact her blindness.
Perhaps it is the fixation on making good art, rather than regaining her sight, that takes the beauty from her later photographs.
In the Q&A session after the film's screening Wednesday, 4 December, El-Kashef revealed how she came to be part of the film and the preparations that ensued to allow her to get used to the physicality of a blind person.
Being part of the film was almost a fluke, she said. When she went on a trip to India and met the film’s director, who she had met at a film festival in Germany. She was asked if she was interested in the part and she agreed.
Before shooting they did a lot of research and visited some schools for the blind.
“There are many schools that teach blind people photography and music in India. It is quite common there,” El-Kashef said, pointing out that a person blind since birth has a different physicality than a person that becomes blind later, as was the case with her character.
To get her into character, El-Kashef was blindfolded for about two weeks.
“It was very difficult at the beginning,” she said. “I also met the whole cast and crew while blindfolded.”
El-Kashef won the Best Actress Award at the Dubai International Film Festival, and deservedly so. She managed to pull off impeccable silent scenes, showing Aliya entranced by the vivid sounds of the city. She is very natural in the performance, particularly in scenes when she was calling her mother on Skype.
The film is her second acting experience after the Egyptian sitcom Al-Gamaa (The University). However, she maintains that she is a filmmaker and not an actress. When asked if she wants to pursue acting, she replied with a hesitant “No.”
The second sequence relays the journey of a sick monk who refuses to take medicine because of pharmaceutical companies’ treatment of animals. Though the scenario may seem exaggerated, watching the horrid struggling of animals in experimental labs brings one to pause and question what we sometimes take for granted.
The story is heart-wrenching, highly contemplative and also serene. The character is very well-drawn and performed, illustrating deep complexities and an elevated spirit.
Accompanied by a young man, who gives the sequence a lighter touch, we engage in thought-inducing debates on the meaning of life.
The third part concerns sociopolitical issues as it delves into the seedy business of the black market in body organs. Navin, who never concerned himself with social issues, becomes adamant to help a man who had his kidney stolen when he suspects that it was the one transplanted into him. As he visits the man in his home, going upward through a maze of narrowing staircases, he becomes more conscious of the level of poverty in India and makes it his mission to help the man.
Despite the film’s low-budget, it is technically superb, winning the Best Artistic Contribution Award at the Tokyo International Film Festival and the Jury Prize for Technical Excellence at the Bombay International Film Festival.
The only problem with the film is its unnecessary length. Some scenes could have been conveyed as well in shorter form, while others did not add much to the film. The combined effect of three parts in the film may have also been a factor in enhancing the lengthened feel.
There is another interesting aspect to the film. All the footage from the film will be available online, so that anyone can edit their own version. This open source initiative goes back the main theme of the film, that revolves around the question of whether changing the components of the whole changes the whole itself, or whether it stays the same.