After Srikanth, watch Ship of Theseus: A complex portrayal of disability and creative confidence | Bollywood - Hindustan Times
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After Srikanth, watch Ship of Theseus: A complex portrayal of disability and creative confidence

May 19, 2024 01:23 PM IST

Weekend Ticket: Ship of Theseus opens with the story of a blind photographer coming to terms with her skills as an artist when her eyesight is restored.

Tushar Hirnandani's Srikanth is another entry into the overflowing list of biopics made in Bollywood where the central character is valourised to such an extent that they cease to feel less like a real human being, and more like a headline. The film has little to say about the man himself, much less on the aspect of disability itself. In that regard, watch Anand Gandhi's Ship of Theseus, a film that threads together three stories about identity and mortality. The first of these three stories is certainly one of the most compelling studies of disability I have ever seen on screen. (Also read: After The Idea of You, watch May December: A sordid, deeply uncomfortable film on age-gap relationship)

Aida El-Kashef in a still from Ship of Theseus
Aida El-Kashef in a still from Ship of Theseus

It tells the story of Aliya (Aida El-Kashef), who is an Egyptian artist now living in Mumbai. She has lost her eyesight to a cornea infection but that has not stopped her from being a photographer. Gandhi lets the viewer come to terms with how Aliya has a flexible, instinctively wondrous gift for sensing sound and space. An early scene just lets her be around a room, her finger reaching out to the texture of a wall as she makes her way forward. In another scene, she hears how a game of chess between grandfather and grandson holds promise. So she clicks a few pictures from the front.

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Yet, things complicate when she receives news from her doctor. It is good news. In the next scene, she opens her eyes to look at herself in the mirror. Her vision grants her access to the space she inhabits, and she finally takes a look at her photographs. The viewer also sees the pictures with her, for the first time. This gives way to unease, as Aliya is unable to tap into her inner gifts of intuition and proximity to capture a frame. She is unhappy with her recent photographs. It culminates in this breathtaking sequence at a bustling stop of a traffic signal in Mumbai, where Aliya stands, and proceeds to capture moments with her camera. A fury of noise, vehicles, lights, and people walking on the zebra-crossing, comes colliding onto the scenes. She stands perplexed. It breaks the visual and aural harmony for her, and this recognition itself causes Aliya to rethink her choices and instincts as a photographer.

Why is Aliya's arc so important as a study of disability on screen? There are numerous instances in films over the years where disability is portrayed as a barrier of sorts for the person to interact with the ableist social forces. There is stigma and pity, or an extreme sense of superhuman-like quality provided on a disabled character to categorize them as 'inspirational'. These forces hinder the disabled person's growth and participation in society and confine their experiences to a preconceived set of notions.

In Ship of Theseus, Aliya's disability is not an aspect that limits her capability as a photographer. Perhaps it limits the way people look at her, but never in the way she perceives her skills and perception. She recognizes her skill in capturing a moment through her lens, one that she experiences through sound and space. Aliya's story is pointedly interior; as we see her navigate difficult, confounding emotions, question her work, and take time to expand her perspective as a photographer. She is left alone and allowed to experience joy, anger, frustration, and agency.

Ship of Theseus is also that rare film that grants Aliya creative autonomy. She gets her eyesight back and what she chooses to do with that one factor that was missing in her life until now, is her decision entirely. Perhaps it is fitting how Gandhi chooses to conclude her story in Ship of Theseus, silently treating herself to a breathtaking view of the mountains. There are no presumptions made so far, and what she will choose to do with her new-found vision is her own choice. Perhaps the greatest pleasure in Anand Gandhi's film is that the film never manipulates its viewers to reach at a destination. It throws questions, ideas and lets the viewer seek answers themselves. This unresolved exploration holds value. The view simply exists, ahead of the captured moment.

Ship of Theseus is available on YouTube.

This is Weekend Ticket, where Santanu Das talks about similar films and shows based on the most recent releases.

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