In Ship of Theseus, writer-director Anand Gandhi explores what distinguishes us as individuals through three vignettes about organ donation. It’s a thought-provoking piece of work that periodically veers into self-indulgence.
The film begins with a written description of Theseus’ paradox. If one were to replace every component of a ship, would the end product still be the same ship? Gandhi asks that question of the human body: how many parts can be replaced and still be considered the same person?
That conundrum is explored the most directly in the first vignette, about a blind photographer. Aliya (Aida El-Kashef) took up photography after losing her eyesight, and she relies upon her boyfriend, Vinay (Faraz Khan) to describe to her the pictures she takes. A cornea transplant restores her sight but alters her instincts as a photographer, to Aliya’s detriment.
The most interesting aspect of Aliya’s story is the way Gandhi uses sound to tell it. Before the surgery, Aliya listens to the noises on the street to alert her to potential subjects. Her camera’s digital voice tells her the aperture size, and her computer’s voice helps her navigate her editing software.
After her surgery, the digital voices disappear. On the street, the cacophony surrounding Aliya hampers her creative sight instead of enhancing it. Credit to sound designer Gábor ifj. Erdélyi for making the same settings feel so different, even though nothing has changed visually for the audience.
Ship of Theseus‘ biggest shortcomings are most apparent in Aliya’s story. There’s an excess of dialogue in the movie, most of it consisting of characters philosophizing about the meaning of life. The pseudo-intellectual dialogue doesn’t sound realistic, and characters aren’t given distinct voices. Aliya talks the same as Vinay, who talks the same as Charvaka (Vinay Shukla) from the second vignette.
Charvaka is a legal apprentice working on an animal rights case on behalf of a monk, Maitreya (Neeraj Kabi). When Maitreya is diagnosed with cirrhosis, the monk must decide whether to have a liver transplant, even thought it would require him to violate his principles by using medicines tested on animals.
The progression of Maitreya’s disease is horrifying and visceral, and Kabi’s physical transformation is startling. Yet it’s most difficult to watch the suffering monk endure Charvaka’s myopic, self-assured musings, apparently generated without an attempt to understand Maitreya’s point of view.
The final vignette concerns a young stockbroker, Navin (Sohum Shah), whose own kidney transplant alerts him to the practice of illegal organ trading. Navin’s attempt to recover the stolen kidney of an impoverished bricklayer (Yashwant Wasnik) shakes him out of his shallow, materialistic lifestyle.
Navin’s story is the most conventional and is the most entertaining to watch (perhaps because of that conventional structure). Shah’s performance is thoughtful, as Navin attempts to discover answers, begrudgingly realizing that his way is not the only way.
However, Navin’s story highlights Ship of Theseus‘ need of editing. Scenes throughout the movie stretch on without providing insight into characters or plot. There’s far too much time devoted to Navin and his friend trying to park their car in a narrow lane as they search for the bricklayer, and even more time wasted as they are repeatedly sent in the wrong direction looking for the man’s house. The poor state of the neighborhood and Navin’s outsider status within it could’ve been established in half the time.
Even the film’s final shots seem less like essential story elements than a chance for Gandhi to show off some neat footage he had on hand. It’s easy to see where Ship of Theseus is going, and much of the ride is quite enjoyable. It just needed to take a more efficient route to get there.