In contemporary mainstream cinema, one finds significant space and attention given to what can be described as the “movie of ideas”. These movies garner significant attention not out of technical or formal breakthroughs (though that plays a role), nor for engaging in any new or radical sociopolitical discourse or for capturing the zeitgeist of contemporary culture, rather they become popular precisely because of the manner in which they appear to engage with particularly chosen lofty themes; subjects that were hitherto the province of undergraduate philosophy and literature students. To choose a special example, a film like Inception engages with recursive notions of reality and the deceptive nature of the visible surface, the province of M. C. Escher, Jorge-Luis Borges and certain films by Alain Resnais and Rául Ruiz. Yet, this worldwide box-office success engaged a crowd otherwise unexposed to such famous precursors. Nor was this success limited merely to the Western World, indeed Inception was a notable success in India.
Of course, Inception isn’t the first example of the “movie of ideas” rather it represents the point where such films became part of the wider consciousness. Earlier examples of the “movie of ideas” can be found in such titles as The Usual Suspects, The Matrix, Fight Club and of course, Memento, by the same director as Inception. These films occupy different genres and different film styles but all of them distinguish themselves by a display of intellectual ambition. This blanket doesn’t include commercial films exclusively. Rather it includes as well films such as Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life whose narrative counterpointed an American family in the 50s with a richly detailed imagining of the origins of life on earth. By citing such vague examples I hope I am making it clear that the “movie of ideas” is not an actual movement or genre of any kind. What I describe is merely the context in which these films have been received by critics and the audience who grasp on to particular attributes of the film’s style and nature. That is to say, these films have had an appeal, large and small, because of the manner in which their respective narratives depict, and directly engage with, abstract ideas.
What makes the “movie of ideas” so different from what used to be described as the “arthouse film”? While the examples I cited above are American, the strain can be found in several films of the 90s and 2000s from around the world, including the Red, White and Blue trilogy of Krzysztof Kieślowski and his Dekalog. It can also be found in some films by Lars von Trier. In the case of the arthouse cinema, say from the 50s to the 80s, one found much foregrounding of weighty intellectual and artistic ambitions(Bergman, Fellini, Fassbinder), but along with that one found a radical engagement with the present (Antonioni) and a constant dialogue with the artistic and intellectual currents of the present and the past (Godard). It’s perhaps not fair to say that the films listed above don’t speak to contemporary concerns, but they distinguish themselves through their evocations of “timelessness”, by featuring stories of “universal concern”, hermetically sealing itself from the present and its thorny context.
Ship of Theseus, the first feature of playwright Anand Gandhi (he had directed two well regarded shorts Right Here Right Now and Continuum), is unusual for the level of sincerity with which it deals with its chosen subjects and theme. Where more bourgeois art films approach big themes and ideas with shyness and embarrassed timidity, Gandhi’s dialogue is bald and forthright showing a comfort with his subject which is rare enough in Indian cinema. Reflecting Gandhi’s previous experience with the short film format, Ship of Theseus is less a feature than three short films with a framing story that connects it externally. Each of the segments is broadly similar in subject and is set in Mumbai for the most part but Gandhi to his credit distinguishes them in visual style and theme.
The first section dealing with an Egyptian photographer in Mumbai (Aida Al-Khashef) heavily foregrounds her subjectivity, her separation and detachment from her surroundings. This is reflected also in the heavy use of handheld camera movements and the constant movements of the characters, a busyness in narrative accompanied with a busyness in form. The second segment dealing openly with lofty spiritual themes and the character of the monk and the hermit, features very stately compositions, fixed camera positions and very little movement. The long lateral tracking shot featuring the hermit Maitreya (Neeraj Kabi) and his chela Charvaka (Vinay Shukla) while obviously impressive from a logistical perspective (of shooting on a busy Mumbai street alongside the graffiti lane of Tulsi Pipe Road), commits itself to the same rigor demanded of the life of a monk, accompanying him on his steady pace and fixed rhythm. The third segment is the one that is most flexible in style, its plot being the most “movie” or “genre-like” of the three, featuring as it does the redemption of that chosen exemplar of modern greed, the stock broker(Sohum Shah, who also produced the film) and a narrative very much like a mystery.
The central idea chosen by Gandhi to thread his film is the thought experiment of the “Ship of Theseus”, first outlined by Plutarch and subsequently explored by the likes of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, the idea of whether a whole retains itself when its components are changed in part, or in sum. The film does well for not providing a definite answer to this riddle within the film but is vague in its application of metaphor to its disparate parts. If this was a deliberate formal irony than it would be nice but considering the facile way with which the film closes, an arty home-video showing of vague landscapes, it exemplifies the overall artistic failure of the film.
As a piece of cinema, Ship of Theseus is fairly bland in its engagement of form. Each section uses basic dramaturgy which assigns ready places and positions to its characters and highlights who they are and what they feel. The film’s use of environment and landscape is likewise one dimensional. The photographer, despite being blind, consigns herself to basic touristic sites and vistas, whether it’s Lower Parel’s newfangled corporate sector or the overpass at Kemp’s Corner with its sloping turning curve. Equally obvious is the film’s use of the Worli Sea-Link as a kind of unifying monument, where the hermit and his friends comport themselves on rocks overlooking the rather ugly bridge. The film reacts to landscapes of the Himalayas and Stockholm with obvious favor in its brief interludes, catering to local fixations for exotic places.
For a film that makes such constant use of Mumbai locations, and (rare for an Indian film) with a generally precise grasp of geography, it’s surprising how little actual city flavor comes in. What we are left with is the bland hermetic space of ideas from which real life and the present is excluded. The film acknowledges reality only in the form of the corruption and compromise which the film’s chosen heroes either resist or oppose. In this way, Ship of Theseus fits firmly in the cultural assumptions spread across both the commercial Hindi and regional films and a good portion of the intelligentsia which essentially agrees with the middle-class reality of money, career and stability and consigns any intellectual engagement as being separate or other from everyday life experience. In this respect, the film is the perfect “movie of ideas”, which engages with intellectual and philosophical ideas on the narrative level, but withdraws any formal engagement with them, managing to be both intellectual and anti-intellectual at once.
Despite being an artistic failure, Ship of Theseus’ small merits make it a lot more worthwhile than the myriad cynical films of our commercial industry which readily achieves the cheap effects it seeks and exploits. The film is strong in its small details, its use of non-professionals and friends from Gandhi’s life adds to a level of freshness and variety missing on Indian screens and it shows a readiness for leaving things unsaid and unexplained. This is especially strong in the second episode where at the end of the film, the monk opposed to animal testing, finally withdraws from his suffering of the fast, which is never clearly explained and not rationalized as fear or defeat. The film’s chief faults lies in its humourlessness or rather its lack of wit except for obvious “funny moments” calculated through comic relief characters. The film’s images likewise display little wit and spirit, staging most of the dialogue scenes in uninspiring two-shots and boring long takes.
The film’s key line, and certainly poignant in delivery, is “It’s as good as it gets”. It contains a level of compassion and sense of sadness that the film otherwise doesn’t dwell on and explore, confronting and glancing at it only from a safe position. A privileged position ultimately, geared to enable the privilege of confronting the truth without actually facing it. A real masterpiece can only be achieved in the absence of narrative and dramatic safety nets. The makers of “movies-of-ideas” trade some visible safety nets for more subtle options and as such one leaves a film like Ship of Theseus with a certain undeniable happiness and good cheer. A film with no visible bad guys, just good people of various flaws, whose goodness and basic compassion the film-maker invites us to share and aspire to in a manner not different from Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia whose revelations of raining frogs cleanses away all doubts, all pain and misery. And so when the film closes, and the revelation of simplicity and common bonding transmutes from the screen to the audience, trading away the angst and despair for a kind of shared oblivion of contentment.