(Published in The Friday Times, Lahore, on December 7, 2012, retrieved from http://www.thefridaytimes.com/beta3/tft/article.php?issue=20121207&page=20)
Cast: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Tabu, Adil Hussain, Rafe Spall, Gérard Depardieu
Director: Ang Lee
Rating: 4.5 stars
Honestly, I was dreading Life of Pi. When Westerners write about the Great Spiritual East, it’s usually hard for readers from this part of the world to swallow. And when Hollywood converts that writing into reels, it usually revels in the mystique and exoticism of the East, showcasing religion to the point of irritating the South Asian audience. Can we really bask in the beauty of floating diyas and the ringing of temple bells and the azan ringing out of mosques and religious processions, when, to us, they don’t symbolise the Great Peaceful Coexistence of Religion and The Comfort of Belief? When, to us, they are simply everyday life? When, more often than not, processions are only cause for worry about law-and-order problems, and we’re mostly relieved when they don’t end in communal scuffles? But, somehow, Ang Lee seems to grasp the essence of a spiritualism that encompasses Hinduism, Islam and Christianity in India, and even throws in the odd ironic remark about religion.
The film departs from the book in introducing the adult Pi (Irrfan Khan), whose adventure after a shipwreck is told in flashback, though a conversation with a somewhat clueless writer (Rafe Spall). This allows Pi to recast the story in the context of the present, and buffer everything that’s too bizarre, or too intense, with the odd wisecrack. So, when the writer says, “I didn’t think Hindus would say Amen”, a Pi in his fifties grins, “We have 33 million gods. Imagine the burden of guilt we carry around.” A teenage Pi thanks Vishnu for introducing him to Jesus, and Jesus for introducing him to Allah, even as his father (Adil Hussain) remarks, “Believing in many things is the same as believing in nothing at all.”
The technique of two timelines, and therefore a flashback with commentary, allows the film to oscillate from the magical to the mundane, so we’re suspended between eye-rolling and realism. A carnivorous island in the shape of a supine deity, populated by meerkats? Come on. Within minutes, we’re wondering how much of this is allegory, how much made up, how much the daydream of a boy who’s spent 227 days on a boat with a pacing tiger. And if this is just a story, why does a man in his fifties break down, thinking of a family that was lost, a mother who fought bravely? And was the mother who makes him well up a woman or an orang-utan?
What Ang Lee gives us is not the 3D of cheap thrills – we only jump out of our skins once – but a window into the story. We’re not witnesses, we’re participants. We waft into the pristine waters of “the most beautiful swimming pool in the world”, which gave Pi his name – Piscine Molitor. We gape from a great height at a sea so calm it could be a mirror. We float down and watch the ripples as a juice can breaks the surface. We’re on the school playground, punning on the unfortunate name that brought Pi from a Parisian pool to “a stinking Indian latrine”. We soar with the giant whale, we fly with the carp, we shiver with Pi.
So beautiful, and so real, is the depiction of this fantasy adventure that one can’t imagine it was shot mostly with blue and green screens. Or that the tiger Pi is warring with is the creation of an animator. Debutant Suraj Sharma, who plays the teen Pi, is flawless. As his frame grows leaner, his eyes grow wilder, his inhibitions fall away, and his laugh becomes hollow. When we see a dark boy with sun-freckles claw into a raw fish, it seems absurd that the actor playing him must have woken up to a good breakfast before walking on to a movie set. We sense his exhaustion and despair, and as a character, he seems more real than the one Yann Martel gave us in the book.
Ang Lee’s skill as a storyteller is evident in the little moments that stay with us. Like Gérard Depardieu’s borderline racist crabbiness. Like the eager Japanese sailor who decides vegetarian Buddhists can eat the gravy off a liver dish, because it’s “taste”, not “meat”. Like a boy who thinks he’s unique because he’s reading Camus and Dostoevsky in school. Some scenes feel so fresh you wonder whether they were in the book. And the subplots Lee himself introduces, outside of the book, lend a sense of completeness to Pi’s life and character.
It’s a delicate business to translate words into images, and Lee gets the balance of what to remove, what to keep, and what to add just right.