Ship of Theseus is an extraordinary departure from anything else Mumbai has made
As is widely known but rarely articulated, most Indian films are terrible. The ones that try to do better frequently wind up being worst of all. I didn't, therefore, go to watch Ship of Theseus with too much hope in my heart. Limited numbers of inconveniently timed shows; ticket prices higher than normal; and, above all, directed by a man who started his career writing the first year or so of that cultural landmark, Ekta Kapoor's Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi. How was hope possible?
It turned out that Ship of Theseus was, well, good. It may even have been brilliant. I don't know. But I definitely felt, while watching it, that it was very, very different from - and better than - anything else that has come out of Mumbai so far. It was subtle and restrained; it did not flatten its characters; it addressed big ethical issues, but avoided easy cliches; it accepted rather than vilified moral compromises; and it made Mumbai look striking without first-worldifying or poverty-pornographying it.
The reason why Ship of Theseus is an extraordinary departure from anything else Mumbai has made is fairly simple: it doesn't pander to its audiences. Nor, like some art-house favourites, does it condescend to them. The best pop cinema from elsewhere sets its own tone and assumes that its audiences will keep up. Here, well, in open defiance of all evidence, Mumbai's film makers thought everyone else was stupider than them. Indeed, this movie has such faith in its viewers that the classical paradox that gives the movie its title isn't explained till the very end, and then in a laconic manner by a Marwari stockbroker.
A few short words on this Marwari stockbroker. I don't want to give away too much, since you are no doubt booking tickets on your smartphones as you read this, but I will say that perhaps the most refreshing touch in this movie was the simple humanisation of men in his profession, and of the trading communities to which he belonged in general. In the way he spoke, in the cut of his hair and his chatty but hierarchical relationship with his associate-assistant-friend, he was instantly recognisable as one of those men who sit, wearing gold jewellery, in small windowless offices across downtown Mumbai drinking oversweetened tea and staring at numbers on their screens. Such men are not, generally, permitted an inner life or an ethical world view by our artistic classes - an easy prejudice actually addressed by the movie with quiet irritation. And his own family is reflective of the way our trading communities are not the cliches that we have made of them: his grandmother is a bit of a radical activist, who speaks Spanish, listens to qawwali in her hospital room, and has Faiz on her wall; he has a cousin in Scandinavia who wears dreadful leather jackets but has still managed to assimilate in small, telling ways. Sohum Shah, the actor who plays the role, was once a real estate agent; in an amusing reflection of his role, he eventually helped finance the movie, as its producer.
One other set piece deserves mention: a small bit in the middle where a public interest litigation on animal testing is being heard in court. Never in Indian cinema history have proceedings in our courts - the way judges kid lawyers, the way well-paid celebrity lawyers smile knowingly in response, the overwhelming aesthetic of paperwork - been presented so effortlessly and believably. (The man playing the lawyer, Sunip Sen, is in fact a lawyer, famous for taking on the petition against Enron in the late 1990s when they placed everyone else on retainer.) Even the inside of a Jain ashram was not presented as an uncomplicated haven of saintliness; for one thing, our first introduction to it is through a guru berating a devotee for not following through on a promised donation.
By this point, you are presumably worried that a cunning Kiran Rao (who's promoting the movie) replaced all the popcorn stands with Kool-Aid dispensers, so uniformly positive has everyone's reaction been. So let me assure you that neither I nor anyone else was blind to its flaws: the first third was a little pretentious, but then it featured artist types, so that's hard to avoid; and the second section was too heavy on the pop philosophy conversation. And clearly even the editor was napping through the long, if pretty, sequences where monks walk through Anil Ambani's wind farms.
But all this is outweighed, for me, by the minor miracle of the film's existence, a product of genuine quality from a cultural machine so accomplished at producing and praising well-polished trash that I had practically given up on it. And if that wasn't good enough news, there's this too: the auditorium was full. Also, it turns out, the film isn't going away after a week. Its run in the major metropolitan cities has been expanded and extended; and it has opened, stunningly, in Kochi and Allahabad. Apparently, if enough people go on the film's Facebook page and vote for their town, the producers will try to ensure it opens there. Everything about this smells revolutionary to me. The question worth asking is: if it's a movie that comes out of the Mumbai film industry, but every part in it is different - is it really a Mumbai movie at all?