Ship of Theseus and Identity

The quest to truly understand oneself is a grueling one. People go through their entire lives without ever achieving such self-awareness. Identity and the process of identifying ourselves becomes a multitudinous task; a divide is formed between us and our sense of self. This is a composite of so many questions which may not have any answers after all. This creates an abyssal distance where we attempt to gather the various fragments of our identity into one integrated form. Yet, such an amalgamated identity may turn out to be unrealisable. This idea is embodied by a particular philosophical concept, the Ship of Theseus.



Ship of Theseus is a thought experiment that alludes to whether an object which has had all its parts replaced bit by bit ceases to be the same object thereafter. The philosophy is inspired by Greek mythology. The story goes that Theseus, the mythical founder of Athens, would go on dangerous adventures on board his ship which was entirely made of wood. To commemorate their great leader, the Athenians sought to preserve the Ship of Theseus in a port for centuries to come. Each time a portion of the ship would rot, since wood is susceptible to decay, the Athenians would replace the rotting with a new plank of wood. Over several years, more of the wooden ship would rot and, consequently, be replaced with new wood until none of the parts of the ship consisted of the original material from which it was constructed.


Several questions pertaining to science and philosophy may be borne out of this myth but the question that interests me the most is that of identity. Ambiguity of identity and its multiplicit nature is emphasised through this experiment. Furthermore, identity’s transience and shifting nature come to the fore. These questions of identity are intriguing but, simultaneously, they may also serve to be deeply distressful.


Ship of Theseus (2012), directed by Anand Gandhi, is a film that shares its title with the thought experiment. Dwelling on the question of identity, the film anthologized the lives of three people who struggle with their sense of identity and moral judgement. The first story is of an experimental photographer who is visually challenged, the second of an ailing monk, and the final story is of a young stockbroker. All three stories are connected by a single organ donor through whom each character is a recipient of an organ: eyes, liver, and left kidney, respectively. These characters navigate their sense of self throughout the film with regard to repairing the ship that is their body.



Aliya is a photographer who works by relying on instinct, and her senses other than sight, to photograph Mumbai. She goes about this quite effortlessly and the viewers get to follow her around as she captures various images. After the cornea surgery that restores her vision, Aliya’s artistic expression gets compromised. In order to develop her artform, she had relied entirely on the rest of her senses. With the sense of sound, she would observe the noisiness of the city. With the sense of touch, she explored the textures of the walls and even the 3D printouts of her photographs. We get to see the frustration and dissatisfaction with which she pursues her passion after the operation. The way Aliya perceived herself and her art over all these years was now shaken up by the introduction of this new sensation of sight.



The second story follows a Jain monk, Manesh Maitreya, who is fighting a case against pharma businesses to get animal testing banned. He is put in a difficult spot when he gets diagnosed with liver cirrhosis which demands him to consume animal-tested medication. The driving emotion in this story is that of adoration. Maitreya and Charvaka, a young lawyer, have frequent debates throughout the segment. Even though they may not see eye to eye over most issues, this discourse leads to the development of a doting sense of kinship between the two. It is this amiability that forces Maitreya to look beyond his belief and morals. Where he had chosen to go on a fast unto death rather than take the medication, Maitreya is ultimately compelled to undergo the treatment due to the ardent pleas of those who loved him. Maitreya did exhibit a great sense of individuality and rigidity in his beliefs, however, his identity was not solely his own anymore; it was an amalgamation of all those who cared about him.



The final story is of a young stockbroker, Naveen, who undergoes a kidney transplant. Soon after the procedure, he learns of a human organ trafficking racket that had stolen the kidney of an underprivileged man, Shankar, under the guise of an appendix surgery. Naveen is ridden with guilt over the possibility that he may have been the recipient of Shankar’s stolen kidney, but this notion is debunked by his doctor who gives him the details of his donor. Yet, Naveen continues to be fuelled by a desire to bring justice for Shankar. This desire may have been reinforced by the tension between the views of Naveen and his grandmother who is a social activist. Naveen possibly saw this as an opportunity to prove himself. He goes so far as to hunt down the recipient of Shankar’s kidney, who lives in Stockholm. However, Naveen feels defeated in the end when instead of the justice that he sought, Shankar settled for a large sum of money offered to him in exchange for his kidney. His grandmother aptly concludes by saying that this is the most he could have achieved. Divine justice is unachievable.


All three stories bring out various concerns about identity. Aliya’s story highlights how our identity is not static and it will always keep transitioning. This change is uncomfortable but it is inevitable; it is up to us how receptive or unreceptive of it we are. Maitreya’s tells us that our identity is not built in isolation. It will, in some capacity, be a consequence of our interactions with other beings. We may even consciously try to build ourselves a new sense of self as we saw with Naveen. Even if this is a gamble, the outcome of it may not be as drastic as we want but it will not be negligible either. The stories in this film are connected through the body, which is a stand-in for the ship of Theseus, and the crisis seems to arise from its need for repair. However, their identity is not an outcome of their body. The crisis arises from what they believe about themselves, which is a concern of the mind. Identity is made robust by these ambiguities and instead of questioning it, maybe one ought to just try to become comfortable with uncertainty.


This NIght Owl Original has been authored by Pooja Bora. She is a student of literature who spends most of her time exploring films as opposed to actually reading the books which her degree demands. On a usual day, she may be found napping on her college lawns, lazily fighting off fire ants.


All stills are from Ship of Theseus (2012).

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