Richard Parker has ductile whiskers. But that hardly matters, because he will make you fall in love with the tiger—whom poet William Blake imagined to be with “sinewy heart” and “fearful symmetry”—all over again. Named after a hunter who first captured him in the wild, this Royal Bengal tiger is afloat on a lifeboat in the beautiful and merciless pith of the Pacific Ocean with Pi, a “skinny and vegetarian” 16-year-old. They are shipwrecked and have to survive 227 days before Pi is rescued.
Director Ang Lee, an inventive visual artiste (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Brokeback Mountain and Lust, Caution), makes something marvellous out of this journey in his new film Life of Pi, penned by Yann Martel in his Booker-winning book of the same name. After it was first published in 2001, the book became a best-seller in many parts of the world.
Lee adheres to Martel’s original in that a vague, pop-spiritual narrative encumbers this journey. The formlessness of God, the relevance of God, the need to surrender to God when all else fails—the narrative poses these questions like a lame moral science (it continues to be a subject of study in many schools in India) textbook writer would. The author’s—and by extension the film’s scriptwriter David Magee’s—preoccupation with religion is therefore wishy-washy. Pi has no genuine faith or real piety; just wonderment at religion’s potential to justify why things happen—an unpalatable litany that New Age spiritual gurus have used over and over again to suit clients.
So this pseudo-reflective tone, interjecting the terrifying journey of Pi and Richard Parker, weakens much of Lee’s film. Even so, Life of Pi is a better experience than reading the book, thanks to the huge battalion of SFX artistes who have worked on it. Lee’s use of 3D technology is masterly. The resplendent and magical terror of a night sky drenched in stars over a still ocean; what Pi sees deep underwater, when reflections from the sky create phosphorescence; a whale’s grand leap over the tiny lifeboat; a 3D storm of flying fish that leaves you breathless; and many shots of the camera looking down on the boat surrounded by the vast blue expanse, from far up—these are assiduously executed marvels, justifying the film’s reported budget of around $100 million (around Rs.550 crore).
Lee’s biggest achievement is the tiger. In its ferocity, or its fragility, or even while passively jerking its head, it is difficult to believe that Richard Parker was digitally created against a green screen. You will fall in love with the gorgeous animal. Lee also makes you wish he’d love you back.
Life of Pi is structurally linear and begins with the meeting of an out-of-inspiration novelist (Rafe Spall) and an older Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan). The novelist was asked by Pi’s mamaji (uncle) to meet Pi for his remarkable story that reiterates God’s existence. So right at the start we know the end of the voyage; we know that Pi survived something extraordinary.
In flashback, the film begins with a surreal and bucolic credit sequence, involving monitor lizards, parakeets and monkeys, unfolding to the lilting beats of tanpura and sarod inside a zoo in Pondicherry, home of Piscine Molitor (Ayush Tandon), named so by an uncle after his favourite Parisian swimming pool. Piscine lives with his father (Adil Hussain), the owner of the zoo, his mother (Tabu), and his elder brother (Vibish Sivakumar). The name Piscine is a constant cause of ridicule by his school classmates.
One day, “Pissing” Patel, determined to change his image, demonstrates in class how his name was actually Pi, the 16th letter of the Greek alphabet and the mathematical constant, the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. The name sticks. Pi has a penchant for religion, almost in a theo-maniac way. He is swayed by Hinduism’s “heroes” and Christ’s sacrifice, and the piousness of Islam. His father, a rationalist, warns him to embrace reason, but by then Pi’s immersion in religion is unwavering.
With beady-eyed innocence, Pi decides to feed the new tiger in the zoo, Richard Parker, with his own hands through the bars of the cell in which it is held captive. His father shows him the wrath of the beast by offering a goat. This incident shatters Pi’s faith, and besides religious faith, he turns to books, mostly by existentialist authors like Albert Camus, and to the affections of a local dancer, Anandi (Shravanthi Sainath). When Pi (Suraj Sharma) is 16, the family decides to sell the zoo and take some of the animals along with them to sell in Canada, on a Japanese ship. A furious storm destroys the mighty ship and Pi is shipwrecked along with a zebra, an orang-utan, a hyena and Richard Parker.
The epic journey of 227 days begins, and eventually only the tiger and Pi survive—Pi protecting himself from the starving tiger by staying afloat on a raft tied alongside the boat.
The relationship between Richard Parker and Pi is fraught with primal competition. Their slow transformation, finally tethering at the end of their lives, has some beautiful dramatic moments. An episode on a floating island populated by thousands of meerkats, where in the night water turns into acid, enhances the tone that Lee adopts throughout with limited success: a combination of the quirky and surreal with the sweet and humorous.
Finally, when Pi is adrift on a shore, slight, infirm and sunburnt, Richard Parker stretches his limbs, taking his first steps on land after 227 days.
Sharma has the daunting job of interacting with a screen while on the shoot, and the debut actor is convincing enough throughout. Tabu and Hussain have small, insignificant roles without much to stand out with, and Khan is only as good as the character’s faux-profound pallor. The dialogues in English sound awfully contrived.
The only thought pronounced in the film which has a visceral impact on the viewer is: Will tiger ever love man? The digitally created star of Lee’s film does not, thankfully, give a definite answer.
Life of Pi released in theatres on Friday.