By Rupesh Jhabak:
I watched Ship of Theseus late into its third week when PVR, the cinema behemoth that took control of the film’s release, allowed a small decrease in ticket prices. On a Wednesday. Ship of Theseus, by that time, was touted as Indian cinema coming of age, as the answer to the no-brainer Bollywood flicks all of us were force-fed. They said it was at the vanguard of serious indie cinema in India. Directors endorsed it, it impressed at film festivals, film critics wrote paeans about its magnificent cinematography and philosophical conversations. Wikipedia classified it under the genre of “avant-garde”.
It bothered me. As I came out of the cinema-hall, my thoughts were that it was just a triptych of stories; two spectacular, one underwhelming. Peppered with pop-philosophy reluctantly symptomatic of the plot. That was all. The world thought differently. It turned out that on the back of its patron, Kiran Rao, and with a clever, oh so clever promotion strategy, it shook the cinema landscape. It seduced people to the cinema-halls, pleased multitudes, collected a basket of positive reviews and is now slowly disappearing from the screen and from any relevant discussion about its place in India’s cinema culture.
And so exactly a month after its release and after innumerable endorsements of its on-screen brilliance, I’ve found that a discussion of its off-screen adventures are equally, if not more, interesting. For instance, a startling truth about cineplex culture reveals itself as halfway into the monk Maitreya’s story, the screen announces an intermission. People throng out for pop corn, cola and microwave burgers. As the film continues, we see the eaten away body of the monk lying on a khat. We could see his bones. Skin eruptions stuck revoltingly to the white cotton sheet. His fast insists on a catharsis in the audience. I try to recite my Sartre and Nietzsche, except wafts of salted pop corn and slurping of the last remnants of cola interrupt that heartbreaking moment. The person sitting behind me burped four times, while I tried to dissociate thoughts of food from the excruciating scene playing out on the screen. It was as if Maitreya senses this moment outside the film and in defeat asks the other monks to get him a doctor. This unintended consequence of putting the monk’s story in the middle is an interesting look into empathy, and for me was the highest point of this film’s off-screen dynamic.
The fact that it was able to become such a sensation in a demographic like India is a fascinating phenomenon in itself. It was, of course, diminutive in comparison to the country-wide release of Chennai Express two weeks later, the only other film worthy of mention. The superstar Shahrukh Khan steered the film to a whopping INR 1 billion opening week, making it the fourth highest grossing Indian film ever. Ship of Theseus made a meager INR 2.5 million. Chennai Express is about the North-South divide and the excruciating regional stereotypes that have earned it many a boos and bad reviews. Ship of Theseus is about death, failure and mortality, about symbolic exchanges – that have made it the harbinger of experimental cinema in the country. Chennai Express gave the Indian audience an easy laugh. Ship of Theseus did not even have easy answers so that we can feel vindicated by the time the credits rolled.
How did a film like that one survive in a landscape inhabited by the lovers of familiar motifs and unquestioning loyalty to superstardom? It tapped into a very susceptible human sentiment, trust. Unbeknownst to the mainstream viewer, the film was posing as an opportunity. Behind all the reviews and promotion campaigns for Ship of Theseus, assertiveness was posed as cajoling. It did not say “Please watch this brilliant, new and different film!”, it projected the film as an opportunity to experience something novel, as an opportunity that will add much to one’s personal significance. It did not say trust the film to be a breathtakingly original story, but trust yourself — for we believe you are the viewer we are looking for. I don’t think anything like it had happened before in film promotion. People filled the cinema-halls as if an invisible rope was pulling them into their seats. A pretentious high-brow cultural product was put against the popular, everyday kitsch of Bollywood screen time. It delivered. Beginning with its release in five metro cities, it ran campaigns where people voted so that Ship of Theseus, that rare cinematic gem, was screened in their city. It was genius.
Over the last month, most mainstream films have been the predictable, gimmicky sagas of aging stars refusing to accept they can no longer play star-struck lovers. It remains to be seen if Indian cinema and people who control it are going to be receptive and welcoming of more films like Ship of Theseus. Not all indie films will be as fortunate as Ship of Theseus. Distribution for indie filmmakers is a mammoth task. Most of them take the festival route. PVR Director’s Rare is one such initiative that screens a lesser-known art film a week. Its inflated prices and fluctuating schedules, however, are a hindrance. There’s nothing much to be done about art films with small budgets except that their incorporation into the commercial landscape of capitalism can be the only possible way out.