Ship of Theseus is an eternal philosophical paradox of a journey within a journey

Sonali Ghosh Sen Kolkata


The truth is multi-faceted and there are many ways to reach it.

May I find balance in this duality.

I pray, my karma of ignorance might
be shed.

May my true self be liberated from the cycle of life and death.

And attain moksha…

Naham janami hymn from Ship of Theseus


Ship  of  Theseus is a classical philosophical puzzle of identity which raises the question of whether a ship that has all its parts replaced remains the same or is it now something entirely different, a new ship? If we replace the ship with ‘us’, then the paradox raises the more existential and spiritual nature of our being, our identity, which parts make us who we are, and if we change these parts, are we still the same, or something different, something new?

Anand Gandhi’s movie Ship of  Theseus, through the device of organ donation and a triptych of three short films, raises this question of identity, change, authenticity and truth.

Ship of  Theseus is what it is because of its structure: If we lose a leg, for instance, and get an artificial one in its place, are we still the same, physically or mentally? Or, have we sacrificed the old self to accommodate this new self, which opens up a door of possibilities (we can walk, run, move again); but the way we perceive ourselves and the way the world perceives us, is it now different?

The first short film about a blind photographer Aliya (Aida El Kashef) who gets a corneal transplant and regains her sight tries to answer this question. When she was blind, she was clicking brilliant photographs, without actually seeing her models or her composition. Once she regains her sight, those very images start to look mundane and she suddenly feels as if she has lost her “inner vision” after regaining her sight. The world, the way she perceived it through her vector drawings, is no longer the world she confronts at a traffic circle. The film is her journey to find harmony in this duality of the inner and outer self — the one that wanted sight, and the one that is trying to reject it.

The way the camera moves is almost as tactile as the mood and tone of the film. Duality is everywhere, in reflections, in mirrors, in the way the visuals are composed, almost like that of a photograph. The director lets us embark on Aliya’s journey with her, almost as close to her as the camera she holds, and in the end lets us interpret her liberation from this duality, in the way we want to interpret it.

The actors almost appear as non-actors, people who feel like ‘us’ and who, as Robert Bresson would have put it: ‘Make visible what, without you, might perhaps never have been seen’ 

Ship of Theseus is what it is though the individual parts that make it up: The second short story is about Maitreya, a pragmatic, rational monk who is fighting against animal testing by pharmaceutical companies. He believes in the sacredness of life and in free will. This belief is challenged when he is diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver and is prescribed medication which is made by the very same pharmaceutical companies he is fighting against. When he decides to fast unto death, rejecting the medicine, the duality of his philosophy and reality comes to the fore.

Does he really have the free will to live and die, make choices, as he espouses, or is he just an organism made up of a million molecules and his existence is also based on the way these microorganisms arrange and rearrange themselves? So, where does one draw the line between this entity (him) and the environment?

The duality lies also inwhether he is rejecting change as a principle or is he becoming as rigid as those he has always been opposed to?

These debates are brought on by lively bantering between Maitreya, and his equally intelligent, budding lawyer and friend, Charavakha (Vinay Shukla). Existentialist debates happen with humour and chatter, making the rather academic arguments accessible to the audience. The way religious beliefs blend with scientific thought also happens seamlessly through the script.

Visually, the treatment here is different from Aliya’s story. Here, the city is not as intimate and personal as seen through Aliya’s camera. Here, the city intrudes if only to heighten the differences of principles. We see symbols of modernity (bridges, tractors, windmills, skyscrapers) constantly intersecting Maitreya’s journey.

Ship of Theseus is what it is because of its history: Are our thoughts, beliefs, feelings that make us who we are? Can we have compassion like the young but not so well educated stockbroker Navin, (Sohum Shah), has for his grandmother, but be socially uncaring as his grandmother accuses him of being?

When she was blind, she was clicking brilliant photographs, without actually seeing her models or her composition 

Navin’s change of heart comes when he realizes that the kidney he was donated could have been stolen from a labourer who had come to the hospital for an appendix operation. Thankfully, this is not the case, but, now, Navin has become a crusader, going all the way to Sweden to “return” the labourer’s kidney to him. So, does this change of heart make him a new person, or is he still Navin, the intuitive man of nature, not someone who ponders too much over his thoughts, but one who just acts?

He is a bit of both, by the end of the film, a more thinking Navin, chastened by the ethics of organ donation, and, yet, resolute in his stand that he tried. He is the most modern of the three protagonists — intuitive, trying to get around any problem with sheer cussedness and tenacity, rather than with deep thought or discussion.

The way the film is structured articulates the confusion he feels in this new world he has entered with spirals, and stuck passageways and disorienting camerawork (endless steps, narrow alleys, disruptive soundtrack and images). The images also delineate the ethics of the developed and developing world beautifully.

Ship of Theseus is a journey: It is a journey of self-exploration for the protagonists and the audience, and thankfully, the director does not take the linear “show and tell” narrative, letting the audience interpret the process of discovery. The duality of characters, images, thoughts, is what makes the trip interesting. The actors in the film almost appear as non-actors, people who feel like ‘us’ and who, as Robert Bresson would have put it: “Make visible what, without you, might perhaps never have been seen.” It is also a self-indulgent journey, but one that, with patience and gentle wit helps you see the new in the same old, old journey of life.  

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: AUGUST 2013