‘Ship of Theseus’, ‘Bhaag Milkha Bhaag’ and ‘The Light’ offer new ways of seeing.
From Indian Express 19 Sep 2013
I am not a frequent film goer and, in fact, see most of my films during long international flights. However, recently I had occasion to see three quite remarkable films in Delhi theatres. The first was the Ship of Theseus. This is a triptych of three apparently unconnected episodes, one dealing with a blind girl who has her eyes replaced; the other with a Jain monk who, on the verge of starvation, finally agrees to a liver transplant; and the third of a kidney transplant patient and his efforts to find the donor. All three episodes are beautifully filmed and brilliantly acted by a largely unknown cast. There are some striking aerial scenic shots, including some taken in Sweden. The blind girl, who, despite her disability, had taken to photography, finds herself disoriented when her sight is restored. The Jain monk goes through terrible suffering and deprivation because he refuses to take medicine based on animal-testing. The third episode deals with the response of a kidney transplant patient to the challenges he faces. It is only in the last five minutes that we learn the connection between these three episodes.
Incidentally, the Ship of Theseus refers to an ancient Greek paradox. If all the planks of Theseus’ ship are removed and replaced with new ones, and a new ship built out of the old planks, which one would be the original Ship of Theseus? This is a thought-provoking, nuanced film, and it is good to see that such previously niche films are now getting a national and even international audience.
The second film that I saw was Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, a superb film that is more or less our version of Chariots of Fire. It presents the story of a great athlete, Milkha Singh, from his childhood to his final triumph in Pakistan. On the way, it gives us fascinating and often disturbing glimpses into the various episodes of his life, including the massacre in his village at the time of Partition, his short spell as a minor criminal, his joining the armed forces and subsequent training and, of course, his many brilliant running achievements in India and abroad. There is a fascinating interlude during which the Indian team visits Australia, including a memorable nightclub scene and a one-night fling with an attractive young Australian girl. The most amazing element is the brilliant acting of Farhan Akhtar. His performance is particularly remarkable because it seems that he trained for 18 months for this film. When he first appears, his physique is good but not extraordinary, and in the course of the film we can see his muscles growing and his entire body becoming that of a world-class athlete. He has recreated the character of Milkha Singh so realistically that Milkha himself is said to have been astonished. Although the film lasts three hours, it does not drag and, as in Ship of Theseus, the photography is excellent. The musical score is also effective, including lots of rock and country tunes from the West, which, being a rock addict myself, I particularly enjoyed.
The third film, though made on a more modest scale and panned by the critics, is also a gem. Called The Light., it is about one of my heroes, Swami Vivekananda. Beautifully portrayed by a handsome young man who looks strikingly like the Swami, it delivers the story of how, through the blessings of Sri Ramakrishna, Narendranath Dutta is finally transformed into Swami Vivekananda. The actor portraying Sri Ramakrishna is also outstanding, and the scenes between the two of them are memorable and full of spiritual resonance. Perhaps the most moving scene is in the court of the Raja of Khetri, where Vivekananda first walks out of the durbar hall in a huff where a dancing girl was performing. Then, when she sings the famous Surdas bhajan “Prabhuji mere avaguna chitt na dharo, Samdarshi hai naam teharo, chaho to paar karo (Lord, do not look upon my shortcomings because you are Samdarshi, one who looks upon good and evil, saint and sinner with an equal eye)”, hearing this, Vivekananda realises that he had acted in an unbecoming manner, and hastens back to the hall where the dancer has just finished the song. He blesses her, calls her “Mata” and asks forgiveness with folded hands for his earlier unthinking behaviour, at which point she falls at his feet sobbing uncontrollably.
The whole Chicago event has been very well recreated, including his famous first address “Sisters and Brothers of America”. His return and his passing away at the young age of 39 have also been shown, as well as his earlier travels on foot as a penniless sanyasi throughout the length and breadth of India, including the famous swim to the rock off Kanyakumari, where his massive statue now stands. The music in this film is particularly good, and whoever has sung for Vivekananda’s part has excelled.
The film reflects Vivekananda’s deep social commitment to the alleviation of poverty that pained him intensely, and his rejection of regressive social taboos.
The important point to note is that, in all these three films, there are no famous billionaire actors or actresses, no Michael Jackson-style ensemble dances now known by the generic term Bollywood dances; no gratuitous violence, except in the Partition scene, and no ridiculous episodes that are becoming increasingly common in our cinema. It is a delight after many years to have been able to see three such films in a row; the last time I recall doing so was with Dosti, Pyaasa and Bandini several decades ago.
The writer is a Rajya Sabha MP