As a student of psychology, the Gestalt school of thought has taught me, “The whole is greater than the sum of all its parts because the human eye, first, sees objects in their entirety before perceiving their individual parts.” Simply put, it means that the construction of an entity is more important than the individual pieces of the entity on their own. Yesterday, I saw the movie, Ship of Theseus, which made me look at this Gestalt principle in a slightly different light.
The premise of Anand Gandhi’s film, Ship of Theseus, is the Theseus’s paradox, as contemplated by the philosopher, Plato, which argues that if you dismantle a ship, plank by plank, and then reassemble it, does it remain the same ship? Thomas Hobbes had introduced a further puzzle asking what would happen if the original planks were gathered up after they were replaced and then used to build a second ship. Which ship, if either, is the original Ship of Theseus?
You know a movie has left a mark if you walk out of the cinema-hall and continue to think about the film even as you wake up the next morning. Ship of Theseus had that effect on me.
Gandhi brilliantly engages the audience with the Theseus’s Paradox by drawing analogies from the lives of his protagonists. There are three stories – each featuring very different situations – yet they all come together in the same frame at the end, in a manner that is so brilliant and that makes such absolute, perfect sense that you are just left gasping with wonder.
The life of each protagonist is showcased as an autonomous component and each of their journeys leads you to a place where you are left asking questions. The story of Aaliya makes you wonder, “If you do not have eyes, does that mean you cannot really see?” or “Is there a possibility that sometimes physical sight actually hinders the real, insightful vision?”
The second story is about Maitreya, a Jain monk, who leads a fight against animal testing. When he is diagnosed with liver cirrhosis, he refuses treatment because he cannot accept drugs that have been tested on animals. Attempts to convince him are denounced with intriguing arguments. This story raises questions that are seldom heard in mainstream features and, on a personal front, left me wondering about the extent and purpose of ideological rigidity.
The third story is about Navin, a stock-broker, who is constantly goaded by his maternal grandmother to contribute to society, at large, in some way or the other, instead of just going about his daily routine. He is presented with an opportunity to do this when he decides to fight for justice for a poor brick-layer, Shankar, who has been a victim of kidney-scam. At one level, this story beautifully portrays how all of us start as ignorant beings and, then, where the journey for the search of truth takes us. At another level, it makes one wonder if a human being is interested only in making money, does it really make him or her a lesser mortal being than someone who believes in sacrificing personal happiness for the greater good.
It is only in the end that you realize that the three beautiful stories of Aaliya, Maitreya and Navin are only deceivingly independent stories – in actuality, the three are all planks that form the unsinkable “Ship of Theseus”. The subtle reference to Plato's allegory of the cave, in the end, is remarkable.
I would recommend this movie to everyone as it is indeed thought-provoking and forces you to utilize your mental faculties for some serious introspection and reflection about your notions of self, and your notions of faith, ideologies and relationships. The beauty of this film lies in the fact that it does not attempt to provide any answers to the age-old debate of the Theseus’s Paradox. Watching Ship of Theseus was quite a fulfilling experience for me and I would recommend all those who haven’t seen it to catch it as soon as possible – it might not in theatres next week – because it is a film that leaves much to savour even after you have watched it.