Ship of Theseus: A blind photographer, a religious atheist & other paradoxes

Last Updated: Thu, Jul 25, 2013 07:36 hrs

A film that relies heavily on philosophy deserves to be viewed philosophically says Satyen K. Bordoloi as he attempts such an interpretation for Ship of Theseus.

Over 2000 years back Socrates proclaimed that an unexamined film is not worth watching.

He didn’t. What he actually said is that an unexamined ‘life’ is not worth living. Extend the idea and consider if a film that leaves no room for examination is worth your time. Don’t you forget it the moment you are done watching?

It isn’t a surprise that a film – Ship of Theseus – that uses philosophy as if it were commissioned by Socrates, is running to packed houses. Such a film that relies heavily on philosophy, deserves the justice of having it reviewed philosophically.

Theseus’ Paradox asks: if parts of a ship are replaced, bit-by-bit, is it still the same ship?

The film adds a corollary: if the parts of a ship are used to replace those of others, which of those ships is the original?

‘Blind’ Photographer
A blind photographer (isn’t that a delicious paradox… one of many in the film) is self-assured and confident of her art. She uses ‘sound’ to capture ‘sight’ (beautifully conceptualized by co-writer, co-philosopher and Director of Photography Pankaj Kumar).

Her boyfriend describes to her the photos. She is vociferous in her judgment of what she wants to keep and reject. Refusing to be patronized, she does more than what one would expect from a ‘blind’ person, including chopping vegetables. She has a surety that most lack and hence despite her disability, is more able than most.

She has to grapple with an absurd problem after, ironically, her eyesight is restored post a cornea transplant. Initially happy, she becomes disoriented and confused.

The transplant restores her sight. But all the new sensory inputs, and re-examination of what she had clicked when blind, makes her loose confidence.

This story raises many questions about life, art and beauty. Is something beautiful only in isolation, losing its intrinsic quality in our perception once the clutter of life invades it? Can an artist create only when she cuts out most of the rest of the world (in the story the lack of sight does that to her), and would she be lost like a child in a huge fair if she were to take in more? Is life also supposed to be lived in such isolation of thoughts, ideas, beauty, love…? Does a beautiful part loses its meaning, purpose and beauty when seen together with the whole?

Is blindness (ignorance), the only way to live a artistic, happy, contended life?

When blind, she finds beauty in everyday things and the chaos of life. But once sighted she needs to go to some place ‘inspiring’. Sitting amidst beautiful snowy mountain peaks, she breathes a sigh of relief.

She gains her sight, but looses sight of beauty. Or is it the other way around?

She tries to put the cover back on her camera lens, signifying her subconscious desire to once again turn blind and thus see without seeing, but the cap metaphorically falls into the stream below.

This story is an analogy to what contemplation or ‘examining our lives’ can do to us. Once our eyes are opened, we are compelled to reassemble life from scratch. It is disconcerting. And we have no way to retrace our steps, to go back to our state of former ignorance.

This ‘reassembly’ leading to equilibrium is an important theme of the film.

Proud to be Disabled
This story brings out certain aspects of disability that few films in the world have ever addressed, let alone with such verve, directness and flourish.

Disability exists only in comparison. When we pity a blind person, we do so because we compare her with those who have sight. When we pity a person who has cerebral palsy, we look down upon her inability to walk or talk like others even as we conveniently ignore something she might be better at than most.

What if everyone in the world were blind? Would we then consider the blind person abnormal?

Disability is thus more of a social problem than a personal one. What adds layers of disability and suffering to that person is our pity. When you stop looking at a person’s disability, what remains is the mild to severe discomfort caused by the person’s ‘condition’.

This has led to the ‘Disability Pride’ movement and marches across the world.

Nirvana for a person with disability is when she stops comparing herself with anyone around and tries to see what she can do rather than fret about what she can’t.

This rejection of comparison is also nirvana for each one of us. Life then becomes a blank slate of possibility rather than an abyss of regret that we often find ourselves starring at when we compare.

Religious Atheist
A centipede is made conscious by a frog who asks him how he manages dozens of legs when the frog finds it difficult to manage even two. The centipede, made aware of his unconscious genius, trips.

A Jain monk Maitreya walks miles to reach a court to fight a case against cosmetic companies that test products on animals. He rescues a centipede, trapped in the melee of crisscrossing human foot. A young lawyer by the name of Charvaka (Charvaka is a heterodox Hindu atheistic philosophy), asks him why should one care to save a centipede?

Maitreya understands that every particle in the universe is the sister of every other, uniting and separating in an endless cycle. A particle that is in you today, will be in another tomorrow.

To the enlightened soul thus, everything is connected.

It is the realization of the essential unity of all things, living and non-living, animate or inanimate that is at the root of the monk’s compassion.

Maitreya tries to explain these in some scintillating conversations with Charvaka. This story samples ideas, philosophies and concepts as if picking fruits from a tree bending humbly due to the weight of its off-springs. The last time any film did this with aplomb was Richard Linklater’s Waking Life.

At the core, is the philosophy of Jainism that Maitreya practices (even as he calls himself an atheist).

Interestingly, in Buddhist theology Maitreya is the name for a future prophet who will attain complete enlightenment.

Then there is the mention of Madhavacharya, the Hindu philosopher who proposed the Dvaita (dualism) theory, one of the most influential Vedanta philosophies.

This story has an interesting, allegorical depiction of the concept of Kaal-Chakra.

In the only shot to use a jimmy-jib rig, Pankaj Kumar hauntingly takes a shot of monks surrounded by windmills. As they part ways, the camera moves up and the shadow of the slowly but menacingly moving blades of one of the wind mill, covers half the frame.

The windmill farm represents Kaal-chakra (time-cycle or the wheel of time) – the ancient Indian (both Hindu and Buddhist) philosophy which believes that everything in the universe, be it interplanetary movements or the existence of human beings is governed by an eternal cycle of life and death, birth and re-birth, formation and dissolution.

Conflict visits the confident Maitreya when he is diagnosed with liver cirrhosis. The only way to save him is a liver transplant that would have him use medicines tested on animals. As a matter of principle and as someone fighting companies that brutalize animals to test products, he decides to practice the Jain principle of Sallekhana or Santhara or Samadhi i.e. renounce life.

Something however, does make him change his mind in the end. Was it the realization of the paradox of his own logic, or the unity of life in the universe? Or was it the realization of the fundamentalism, the stubbornness of his own stance? The film beautifully leaves the reason for the transformation, the mental and emotional reassembly after being de-fragmented by evolving circumstances, to the watcher’s interpretation.

Reluctant Activist
We usually don’t feel the need to ‘examine life’. We are happy doing our little bit for those nearest to us, refusing to see the larger picture, refusing to include a larger group of humanity in our circle of affection and compassion.

What if we were suddenly forced to contemplate, to expand our compassion?

A stock broker who takes his work to the hospital even during his kidney transplant, is least bothered by the entreaties of his activist grandmother to do something better, something more with his life than make money.

Like most of us, he is kind in his own little way and that’s enough for him. Why should he, he asks, try to live up to his grandmothers expectations of him?

His conscience is awakened by the cries of a woman whose daily-wage earning husbands kidney has been stolen. The journey that begins with trying to find out if the kidney he has received belongs to this labourer, takes him half-way across the world.

Succeeding partially but bothered with his inability to get full justice, he opens up to his grand mother who explains: “whatever happened, happened because you made an attempt.” She concludes: “This much is usually what happens.”

In an interview Greek-French director Costa Gavras was asked by a journalist why in his films honest protagonists win small battles while the system moves in to crush dissent and finally regains its corrupt equilibrium.

Gavras replied that he was merely depicting reality. What’s the point, he was asked, if hope has to end and resistance crushed? Gavras replied that it was wrong to look at resistance as a means to something else. Resistance is the end. Resistance is the reward.

‘Itna hi hota hai’, says the grandmother in the end, echoing Gavras’ thoughts. And ‘this much’ is enough. Problem occurs when we get so complacent and comfortable that we don’t resist, that we don’t fight to do even ‘this much’.

There are many things cinematically stunning about the film, especially its haunting visuals and menacingly detailed sound-design. Yet nothing surpasses the brilliance of its meditative long-shots.

The first story has a shot that is five minutes long. The second has one that is a little over five minutes. The third story outdoes the first two. One sequence is an uncut seven minutes long shot. As if competing with itself, it has another shot that is a full 12 minutes long.

12 minutes of an uncut long shot at an age when most visuals we see employ a dozen cuts in a matter of seconds, shows the confidence of director Anand Gandhi.

Few new films have engrossed one so much with their long shots. Two fairly recent examples I can give are of the Romanian film 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days and the Kazakh feature Tulpan.

Each of the three main protagonists are forced to examine themselves due to the changes caused by the replacement of a body part (one can even look at this as a metaphor for relationships where the coming or going of a new lover forces us into profound changes). This introspection changes them forever.

In the examination of their own lives, their own world views, the film cajoles the viewer into a similar examination. ‘Viewer, know thyself,’ the film seems to tell us.

Staying in character, Ship of Theseus ends with the Platonic Allegory of the cave. The philosopher Plato argues that human beings are imprisoned in the cave of their own existence, falsely believing the temporary as having permanence. The job of a philosopher, he argues, is to help people find a way out of the cave.

In the last scene of the film, we see the shadow of the man in the walls of the cave he is exploring. Those who received his organs, watch this short clip. The man who we see only as the shadow in this clip, did not make it out of the allegorical prison-cave described by Plato.

The organ-acceptors watching the film, through their intellectual and emotional turmoil, did.

And perhaps, so did the audience.

Satyen K Bordoloi is an independent film critic, writer and photojournalist based in Mumbai. His writings on cinema, culture and politics have appeared nationally and globally.

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