Anarcho-environmentalism allegorised

The name Anaarkali in the present context has many meanings - Anaar symbolises the anarchism of the Bhils and kali which means flower bud in Hindi stands for their traditional environmentalism. Anaar in Hindi can also mean the fruit pomegranate which is said to be a panacea for many ills as in the Hindi idiom - "Ek anar sou bimar - One pomegranate for a hundred ill people"! - which describes a situation in which there is only one remedy available for giving to a hundred ill people and so the problem is who to give it to. Thus this name indicates that anarcho-environmentalism is the only cure for the many diseases of modern development! Similarly kali can also imply a budding anarcho-environmentalist movement. Finally according to a legend that is considered to be apocryphal by historians Anarkali was the lover of Prince Salim who was later to become the Mughal emperor Jehangir. Emperor Akbar did not approve of this romance of his son and ordered Anarkali to be bricked in alive into a wall in Lahore in Pakistan but she escaped. Allegorically this means that anarcho-environmentalists can succeed in bringing about the escape of humankind from the self-destructive love of modern development that it is enamoured of at the moment and they will do this by simultaneously supporting women's struggles for their rights.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Media Promotion of a Non-Problem

When millions, especially infants and children, die in India annually due to completely preventable diseases like diarrhoea, cholera, malaria and plain malnutrition, is the death or disability of a miniscule few due to the malfunctioning of some organ of their body of greater social and philosophical importance? Well, if the media hype around the film "Ship of Theseus" is to be believed the latter is what should cogitate the intelligentsia of this country. After reading continuous praise for this film on the Internet as being one of the best ever produced I reluctantly decided to go and see it in a cinema to see what the hype was all about. Disappointment is a mild way of putting my feelings about this film.
First of all let us consider its qualifications as a film before coming to its content and finally its name. A feature film should have drama. Well this film singularly lacks drama except for some artificially contrived debates among some of the protagonists over jaded philosophical issues and the contrived ending is meaningless instead of being climactic. There is some good cinematography but once again it is contrived and not part of the story line except in the third story. The film could have been shorter and tighter without many of its contrived scenes.
Coming to the content, the focus of the film is on organ replacement and donation. The medical procedures for organ replacement are extremely costly and so accessible only by rich or well connected people either in this country or abroad. So it is not of any concern for the billions of poor people and if some of them suffer from organ malfunction then they have no option but to be disabled or die. Instead the poor are sufferers of a racket of organ stealing which is rampant in this country as is the illegal clinical testing of drugs without their informed consent on poor patients who visit hospitals. The issues of cruelty to animals in drug testing and the suffering of the poor from whom organs are stolen do come into the narrative in a peripheral way but they are not taken to their logical conclusion and are left hanging in the air. This is because the overwhelming stress in the film is on organ replacement and its philosophical and ethical basis. Since this is a phenomenon that is a part of capitalist medicine catering to a very few rich people across the world, I at least fail to see how it can be an all important existential question of our times to catapult this film on the basis of its content into one of the best ever given that in film making terms also it is quite pedestrian!!
Finally coming to the name of the film which refers to a philosophical conundrum posed by the ancient Greek philosophers about whether a ship, all of whose parts have been replaced during repair is still the same ship. Now, even in those times when scientific knowledge was not advanced enough, this paradox was a thought experiment that was of peripheral concern to the philosophers such as Socrates and Plato, whose main concern was with the meaning of human existence. Currently in the light of modern scientific knowledge about our bodies, in the case of human beings at least, this paradox has become obsolete and useless. Our bodies are mostly made of cells which vary in age from a few days to about ten years except for a few cells in the cortex of the brain which are there from birth to death and determine the continuity of life over this period. Thus, our bodies are continuously changing and so are our personalities because we imbibe new ideas from our social environment and discard others that we may have acquired earlier either consciously or unconsciously. As Descartes famously said - "I think therefore I am"!! Medical replacement of an organ, thus, does not pose any great philosophical or existential problem per se though obviously it affects the physical, mental and emotional makeup of a person especially in the case of a blind person who gets eyesight. The ending tries to refer to another of Socrates' thought experiments - the cave allegory. Suppose we are all prisoners in a cave and are able to see only the wall in front of us and the shadows falling on it due to the sunlight behind us. Then we will think that those shadows are the reality. Only when we come out of the cave will we realise that the shadows are not the reality. One is left wondering as to whether the director is hinting that the people who got organ replacements are akin to people who have come out of a cave in which they were earlier. Even if that is not so and the director is trying to picturise the play of illusion and reality, then also he is not doing anything path breaking because the likes of Ingmaar Bergman have pretty much exhausted this line of picturisation in a much more accomplished manner.
One gut response answer to whether a film is great or not is whether one would like to see it again and again. Well, another multiple story film which has a deep philosophical undercurrent (and mind you in this film there is no overt philosophical debating as in the Ship of Theseus because the philosophical problematic comes out from the gripping narrative itself) is the Akira Kurosawa classic "Rashomon". I have seen this film a number of times and would love to see it again and again because each time I find myself cogitating over which of the stories is the true story and my answer depends on my own philosophical position in life at the time I am seeing this film. I am afraid I can't say the same for the "Ship of Theseus" which is eminently forgettable and can't be considered to be a great film by a long shot let alone hold a candle to Rashomon. One just has to compare the virtuoso film making, cinematography, content, drama, story telling, climax and the superlative acting of Rashomon with Ship of Theseus to understand that the latter is nothing but a load of crap!!
This brings me to the way in which the media these days is manipulated by the capitalists and in turn manipulates the intelligentsia. A total non-problem that concerns only the rich is cynically magnified into being an existential problem of our times and the intelligentsia goes ga ga over it. 


Bhavana Nissima said...

aah nice! I have been hoping to read some contrarian views on this film. Glad to read yours. Can't react immediately. Need to mull over what you have written.

Subhorup Dasgupta said...

It was interesting reading this perspective, since most people are going gaga over it. I liked the film too, and to me, it seemed more a cinematic tribute than an original philosophical pursuit. I also agree that almost (possibly) all the devices used have been used, often to better effect, by the masters.

The reason I enjoyed this film was because it was made by an Indian, with an Indian context, and made innovatively, and reasonably well. I also enjoyed the Tarkovsky, Bergman, and Kurosawa moments. I do not think the film is about organ transplantation, though that is what it seems to be about. I also do not think it is about the thought experiments. But then, that is me, I tend to project what I look for on to what I see.

Does that happen to you too?

Rahul Banerjee said...

Subhorup every one has their likes and dislikes and also everyone reads a book or sees a film with some baggage of their own. My grouse was not against the film per se but about its being touted as being the most significant film to come out of India in a long time precisely because of its philosophical pretentions. If there had not been so much false hype about the film then it would have been alright but when there is such blatant grandstanding then that has to be put in its place!! I had found even Black starring Amitabh Bacchan and Rani Mukherjee among others to be a better film than this one.

Subhorup Dasgupta said...

I thought Black was a great film too. And it is perhaps wrong to say this is the most significant film to come out of India too. Every screening that I have been to, and I have been to a few, has been a handful of people in an otherwise empty auditorium.

Salty said...

I liked the film but will not see it again as its too long. I liked it because it poses the age-old philosophical question on the purpose of existence( a-la Socrates). The organ-replacement twist does change the purpose of lives for the three protagonists. To the blind girl, photography ceased to be her purpose when she had a cornea transplant. The Jain monk found a new purpose to live and the stock-broker's purpose of life became the desire to return the kidney. Well, so much about philosophy and definitely SOT can't even hold a candle's wick to Rashomon & his perspectives on truth. Lets give Arun Gandhi the credit for making a watchable film whether visually or aurally. The script was intelligent and sounded pretentiously intellectual & as you correctly said there's no deep philosophy. But Arun Gandhi is just 25 & learning. I guess.
p.s: But for Kiran Rao, Arun wouldn't have got his movie showcased. Not that its a big deal because so many other movies too fall by the sidelines.

Rahul Banerjee said...

Salty how did the Jain monk find a new purpose to live? He clearly tells his junior monk that he is not yet ready to give up his life. Similarly the stockbroker is definitely resigned after he fails to get the kidney returned and succeeds only in getting some money being given to the victim which too is generally very unlikely. somehow the film seemed to be too contrived to me.

Salty said...

Firstly it's Anand Gandhi & not Arun. My bad!
Secondly,the stock-broker's story doesn't seem naturally real, if that's what you meant. (But then I also see a lot of impulsive one-off do-gooders amidst serious, sustainable ones.)On second thoughts, the story lines appear weak. Even if one accepts that the monk has merely postponed his "Sallekhana"; its difficult to find his reasoning to accept medications for his transplant-operation.
I think Anand's approach towards filming is that of a bit of an explorer who is trying to understand. His approach is relatively fresh, visually appealing along with his imperfections and hopefully as he matures as a film-maker his story-lines will get tighter!

Rahul Banerjee said...

For that Gandhi will have to be humble which does not seem to be the case from the sound bytes he has given in some interviews.