Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Ship of Theseus

While life is yours, live joyously;
None can escape Death's searching eye:
When once this frame of ours they burn,
How shall it e'er again return?

- Madhava Vidyaranya, 14th century AD

Social status depends not upon your accomplishments, but in the ownership of property; wealth is now the source of virtue; passion and luxury are the sole bonds between spouses; falsity and lying are the conditions of success in life; sexuality is the sole source of human enjoyment; religion, a superficial and empty ritual, is confused with spirituality. 
- Vishnu Purana, ca. 100 BC [a prediction of the modern age]

Ship of Theseus "tries to" ask if there is a beyond outside the body, the material world: if you were to create a man with different parts, would that still be a man (a life, rather, since the emphasis is not just on humans), or would something still be missing? (And what would that be?) Its intentions "seem to" be to address the opposition between two of the ancient Hindu schools of thought, as quoted above: one dualist, the other not; one believing in soul, the other believing in the here and now and nothing else. However, unfortunately, the film ends along with Life of Pi as one of the several recent successful spirituality-driven hoaxes: it seems that such stuff has become the new business, with audiences fed up of investments and shopping in upmarket malls wanting some instant dose of spirituality. What else are discussions between Kabi and Shukla (playing the characters of Maitreya and Charvaka in the film) except for some "Learn to Be Spiritual in 10 Minutes" crash course?

One of the main reasons for this film to suffer the same fate as Life of Pi's is once again heavy reliance on technology: director Gandhi may or may not have used the most high-end equipment to shoot his film. However, it's the film's stunning cinematography and graphics that keep the film propped up, more than anything else. A couple of other good things that Gandhi did was to keep background scores away, often (ab)used to give some 'epicality' to the film; plus use of a decent cast and "cleaner" urban India (thus keeping the film focused to the spiritual narrative it wants to tell). However, with the lack of substance in the film, the props can only support this much: it "can get only this much good."

The most important blot on the film is in its most important-seeming story: that of Maitreya, the (Jain) monk. It is easy to ask questions, but it's the clues one needs to provide, one's own insights, through art. The questions are already there. What's the answer of Maitreya to Charvaka's "What's the difference between you and a suicide bomber?" A lame "Are you really making that analogy?" Why not? In fact, what's the problem with the suicide bomber? Is he, who at least hasn't lost the capability of believing, not better than someone who can't do so? Maitreya's apparent irritation to being compared with a suicide bomber comes across, and makes you understand that the director doesn't know his own story: he has been able to think only till the skin depth of questions, then it's all dense.

For beliefs are not meant to be established through reason. For if I love someone, I can never prove it. I may feel it. The beloved might or might not feel it. In any case, there is no proof. Love is simply belief. Nothing less. A believer who tries to explain his belief is already an unbeliever: belief is Mira's devotion to Krishna, it is what spirituality is all about. Gandhi has reduced the flame of spirituality to its cinders of religion, and mistook the latter as the former: Maitreya tries to explain away his institutional duties and abidings by saying that it's important to look beyond symbols. But why to have symbols? While Western philosophy works through creating more and more symbols for esoteric circles of intellectuals, spirituality works through removing more and more symbols for esoteric circles of believers, for those who have the supreme capacity to be ever joyous, to believe. Symbols are meant for those who can't look beyond them: a form of spiritual spoon-feeding. And yet no one can be spoon-fed: wisdom has to come to oneself from within, from one's own experiences. The film itself abounds with references, the intellectual's favourite symbols. And yet, Gandhi is unable to build any of his characters in the film, except to a certain extent that of Sohum Shah in the third story: and that is where his film lacks pitifully. More importantly, it is clear that the film belongs to yet another pseudo-spiritualist class of work, that the person telling the story has himself not the inclination or the ability (or both) to think more deeply of what he's saying.

Once the lack of substance prevails, there is nothing much else in the film to watch, for there is hardly any storyline except in the third (Shah's) story (which also has some good comic moments). One pity is that the Hindi dialogues are very inaccurately subtitled by the filmmakers themselves: but that is hardly any new trend in a world and a film where 'karma' and 'karmic' is bandied about half a dozen times with the standard Western meaning of the word while all along pretending to portray Indian thought. The only reason to watch it once is its cinematography, plus for those unaware of Indian nonviolent traditions, to get introduced to them. If you have missed watching this film, there's nothing to regret.


  1. Ship Of Theseus is one among the most brilliant and thought-provoking movie India has seen. Like icing to the cake SOT released this year when Indian cinema celebrates its Centennial Year. It is one of those movies that you must watch!