Ship Of Theseus And Madras Cafe; Compelling Films That You Cannot Miss During The Lockdown- PART 31

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Ship Of Theseus And Madras Cafe; Compelling Films That You Cannot Miss During The Lockdown- PART 31
Ship Of Theseus (2012): Sometimes ailing and healing become a unified process. Just as suffering is a precursor to wisdom, so too a film about the curative process can, and in this case, does, provide some profound insight into the workings of the human heart. There are three stories of infinite reverberations in debutant director Anand Gandhi’s film. And what a debut Gandhi has made! Ship Of Theseus is so luminously layered, so spectacularly segmented, and yet so cohesively assembled you fear the entire burden of existence would weigh down the narrative. But no. The Gandhian miracle is that there is a sense of lightness running through the three stories.

We can comfortably say, this is neo-Gandhi’s experiments with truth. Anand Gandhi doesn’t fear the unknown. He explores the darkest areas of the human soul and waits patiently for answers to emerge in the questioning light . Often we see, the three protagonists walk that talk to an area of enlightenment through intersectional interactions that don’t subscribe to basic rules of engaging cinema.

The film’s three editors Adesh Prasad, Sanyukta Kaza, and Satchik Puranik(I presume each edited one of the 3 stories) doesn’t prune down the shots to get our attention. Instead, we are invited into this world of spatial scrupulosity where cinematic rules of time management are undermined for the sake of something much larger and vital.

Hence when in my favourite story the ailing monk(played with inscrutable veracity by Neeraj Kabi)  speaks to his young beatnik lawyer-friend as they walk briskly across the bustling streets of Mumbai, the camera trails their dialogue without cuts.


No one would dare interrupt a discourse on the exigencies and practicalities of a non-violent protest against medical experiments on animals when two such iconoclasts are at it with an extempore exuberance.

The importance of this film lies in its complete eschewal of self-importance. Anand Gandhi takes on questions that echo across eternities. Rather than assume a position of infinite disposition the film’s tone is one of contained exposition.

As a writer and director Gandhi doesn’t get carried away even when his characters do. Not that they are susceptible to extravagant self-expression. The one trait that connects all three protagonists is their aversion to overt emotional display. In the first story the very beautiful Aida El Kashef plays Alia who in blindness discovers an inner incandescent vision that enables her to become an outstanding photographer.Alia tends to get argumentative with her patient boy-friend in her state of non-visibility.

(The boyfriend, incidentally has the film’s funniest line when she retrieves her eyesight he says, “You hadn’t signed up for this, had you?”)

Even when Alia loses her cool she loses it coolly. Very coolly. The disposition to allow the characters an emotional and spiritual freedom is pre-empted by a stark austere state of expression which doesn’t encourage self-indulgent narrative devices. The images that run through the film are qualified by a minimalist beauty. Even the streets, sights and sounds of Mumbai are not used to convey the overpowering desolation of the dispassionate bustle that we saw in, say Kiran Rao’s Dhobi Ghat.

Monks walking  bare-feet through acres of windmills, or the solitary monk barely able to walk through his illness plodding through Mumbai’s compromised hinterland...For some reason the best visual images occur on the monk’s tale.

Cinematographer Pankaj Kumar(what a maestro of the lenses!) is given the daunting task of visually manifesting a series of abstract intangible images of suffering and redemption that run through the director’s head. The camera never  lies.This film wouldn’t allow it to, even if  it tried.  The  exceptional beauty of this  work is not blinding in its brilliance. The visuals constantly assume positions  that manifest the lost  inner world of the characters while making sure not to lose sight of the ambiance that fosters their individual space.As the characters seek to find a centre to their fractured conscience we are privy to an extraordinary process of filmmaking where the director builds a connecting bridge between the world of ideas and their outward manifestation.

The most straightforward and the least lyrical of the three stories is the third story where Sohum Shah(born to play his character) is a stockbroker who sets off on trail to  Stockholm to retrieve the stolen kidney of a poor chawl dweller.

Retrieval and redemption run across the length of this unconditionally nourishing cinema. Gandhi’s narration is so devoid of cinematic affectations and so emphatically rooted to a reality that shuns coyness, that we straightaway become a  part of the world that the director has built brick by brick into this edifice of  uncluttered beauty.

Indeed the more profound the ideas get in Gandhi’s narration the less complicated is the storytelling.Finally when the three stories come together through the theme of organ transplant we are no longer looking at and for binding threads.Ship Of Theseus takes us so far away from the acceptable prerequisites and definition of Good Cinema that we forget that so far, we have never forgiven cinema that dares to be self-indulgent.

Ship Of Theseus is a cinema of self-indulgence at its sublimest. Gandhi weaves his ideas into coiled urgent vignettes that tell us so much about the quality of life without engaging us in uneccessary polemics. This is a film of ideas. Luckily the plot doesn’t get mired in theoretic masturbation.

What we come away with is a sense of loss even as the film weaves a hypnotic tale of repair redemption and renewal.

This  is a somber, meditative profound and yet weightless work of unfettered beauty.A life-changing experience. No less.Anand Gandhi defines life’s mysteries in mysterious ways,showing a command over his mammoth philosophical world that Mani Kaul and Jean-Luc Godard would have envied.

Madras Cafe(2013):   If only history could be changed by art. Cinema is  a powerful medium for socio-political expression and revolution. Alas, in this country entertainment engages all other aspects of life on celluloid.But seriously, we need a reality check. And we need to regain a sense of history in Bollywood cinema which seems lost  in the hoary art of streetside tamasha,glorified and aggrandized by processes of  cinematics that are perceived to be the elixir of  pop culture.

Ladies and gentleman, it is time for mainstream entertainment to grow up. Heightened realism is a means to achieve  a synthesis of fantasy and history in this deftly scripted semi-fictional account of the processes leading to Rajiv Gandhi’s tragic assassination in 1991.

The trenchant script co-written by Somnath Dey and Shubendu Bhattacharya attempts and succeeds in building the same spiral of pseudo-history that Oliver Stone built in JFK. I feel Indian politics, because of the country’s multi-culturism, is far more complex than its American or European counterpart. Our cinema tends to dilute simplify and trivialize history because we are much too wary of and lazy about getting involved.

Not Shoojit Sircar. Not Madras Café. Not John Abraham, What courageous producer and actor John has proven himself to be! More of that later. But first the plot. Let me say right away that to understand the enormity of the story told in Madras Café the audience ought to be familiar with the violent history of the Sri Lankan civil war. But hey, even if you are don’t know that thousands of Tamilians died in the war of separatism , it is no sweat off the screenplay’s back. Tucked away in the compelling creases of the plot is a terrific thriller about  the assassination of  a prime minister, who, let it be known , is not named in the film.  Nor are the LTTE, Prabakaran and the other key players . But then this is India. Here secrecy and stealth are the founding fathers of any political expose.


But you can’t escape the clutches of history’s tyranny. Shoojit’s skillful interweavement of fact and fiction leaves little room for skepticism . We know as we watch with helpless astonishment, that the ‘Prime Minister’ will die, that the hero in this case won’t be able to save him.

Such are the heroes in real life. Unsung, sizes smaller than life.John Abraham skips into the part of the RAW agent Vikram Singh with an ease and comfort of a natural-born secret agent. If James Bond or for that matter Kabir Khan’s Tiger  were to have any truck with real-life politics ,they would have been as believably brave and as credibly heroic as John in this film.

Every actor seems to take a cue from the vast resources of authenticity at their disposal. Especially riveting is  Prakash Belawade as John’s associate who seems to drink hard to escape from the enormity of his compromise. Even Nargis Fakhri, so self-consciously affected as Ranbir Kapoor’s doomed soul-mate in Rockstar, nails her war correspondent’s part with her radiant presnce. But I have a quibble with her character Jaya. Why does Jaya speak in English while Vikram answers in Hindi?

The linguistic puzzle never quite obstructs the devastating drama of war  violence conspiracy and betrayal. These are dramatic points of political reckoning. And yet Shoojit keeps the proceedings subdued and low-key. It’s a miracle how Shoojit’s narrative voice never gets shrill even when the occasion is so ripe for over-statement.

Plenty of the credit for the tonal correctness of the narrative must go to Kamaljeet Negi’s brilliantly unadorned cinematography which locks in on stunning visuals of violence and espionage-related action without falling into the mistake of making the frames look prettier than the grim situation they are meant to capture.

Shoojit’s editor Chandrashekhar Prajapati imbues a documentary-style mood to the footage. But the sense of cinematic expansiveness is retained in the way the camera moves through the characters’ restless lives searching for positions of comfort in a situation laden with desperate anxiety.

There is a whole lot of stifled drama in Madras Café. When a key character dies in the second-half the tragedy is handled without fuss. John Abraham’s tightlipped performance gives the film a sense of tragic grandeur .We constantly feel we are in a territory where drama has no place.The soundtrack is exceptionally honest. At times I actually heard John wheezing while talking under duress. Shantanu Moitra’s background music underscores every scene without hammering in the emotions.

Madras Café is a dark deep and satisfying film about the politics of separatism. The film doesn’t take sides. If it is against anything it is the culture of violence that nations often feed into neighbouring countries for their own gains. This film opens up the hitherto-unexplored genre of political drama in Bollywood. After Vickey Donor we know Shoojit Sircar is comfortable exploring innovative cinematic territory. Here he tells an edgy disturbing provocative but rational and fair-minded story that takes mainstream Bollywood cinema kicking and screaming into a new horizon.

Forget about what happened once upon a time in Mumbai. There is so much history to reclaim from our past. Madras Café does it with enrapturing élan. This is cinema signifying a coming of age with unforgettable visuals and drama and a rousing mature career-defining performance by its leading man. 



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