The boy, the tiger, the ocean – and in some unseen distance, God. These are the dominant players in ‘Life of Pi’, Ang Lee’s tastefully smart, if lightweight fable, that’s also one of the safer bets at this year’s Oscar turnout.
Early in Ang Lee’s adaptation of Yann Martel’s prize winning novel Life of Pi, there is a dinner table discussion between an agnostic father and his religion prone son. “If you believe in everything”, the father says, “you will end up not believing in anything”. The son, Pi, at this time in the movie played by Ayush Tandon, is a skeptic to his father’s rationale. Born to Hinduism, the boy is enamored by the gods – and not just the millions of gods of his own religion, he tells us.
His affection (or affliction, as the case turns out) to godly presence is unbiased and wholesale. He is a Hindu, who believes in Christ, prays like a Muslim, and later joins Kabala. Or as he says in one of his bedtime prayers: “Thank you Vishnu for introducing me to Christ”.
That much collectivity of belief, of course, leads to one of the major Catch-22s of the movie: To drown a ferocious Bengal tiger or be cat food. Decisions, decisions.
When Pi opens, there’s a decent 30-odd minutes of buildup. Pi (originally named Piscine, which he changes after schoolyard bullying) lives in Pondicherry with his mother, father (a fine Adil Hussain and Tabu) and a semi-obnoxious brother (Vibish Sivakumar). They manage a local Zoo, which nears shutdown when governmental support dries up. To get a fresh head-start for his family, the father decides to migrate to the land of opportunities and relaxed immigration policies — Canada. The family will have a pit stop on the way to sell the animals, which they own.
Pi meanwhile has little choice but to not mope. He’s leaving his new secret girlfriend (Shravanthi Sainath) — and they’ve just recently hooked up.
In the ship they sail, where there is a nasty cook (Gérard Depardieu) a kindhearted Buddhist sailor (Bo-Chieh Wang) and the basis for a neatly tucked-in story. And then the ship capsizes in a spectacular storm (one of the film’s first heart-pounding highlights), leaving a half-wounded zebra, an orangutan, a hyena, Pi — and the film’s star attraction — the tiger, in an escape boat at the Pacific ocean’s behest.
The tiger we learn is called Richard Parker via one of the film’s witty anecdotes — and he is a sight: all heaving furs, fangs and predatory eyes; a prowling, pouncing menace that breathes without ever letting the viewer know that he is a figment of computer generated imagination.
A hefty bulk of Pi is about Pi and Richard Parker’s persistence to survive the seas until humanity picks them up. People finding these two, of course will wait until perfect storms, divinely painted skies, carnivorous islands and flying fishes finish their screen-time.
When, and as they happen, Lee is crafty enough to subjugate his source material’s tendency of preach to modest and unobtrusive quarters. Although the doses of moralization and religious grounding is ever present in most of Pi’s dialogues — he calls out for god, happy or sad, in every other scene — this attendance is of lesser, if not superficial, consequence.
The tiger by the way doesn’t speak, save for one cinematically (read: artistically) indulgent scene of a deep flight down the ocean. In that scene he looks Pi straight in the eye, at once wise and all-knowing, as if answering on the boy’s insistence. It is a calm moment of an understanding animal. Of subdued communication. An expression people with pets understand.
But then again, Richard Parker doesn’t need anything other than growls, roars or savagery.
The kitty’s lingering hunger pangs keeps Pi on his toes, he admits in a scene. And in a deft way it snaps the film’s own attention span in shape. The screenplay by David Magee never dwindles on this practicality. The tiger is not your friend. He is untamable. And he will eat you if his timing connects. How will Pi secure rations, when his boats’ emergency supplies end? — especially when he’s a paw-swipe away from ending up as the night’s menu for Richard Parker? What about clean, salt-free water?
The soundness and applicability of Pi’s survival — and sanity — is as president as Tom Hanks was in Cast Away (another film that beautifully expands on life’s subsistence in all of its tenuous starkness).
In comparison, Wilson, Hank’s ball-pall, wasn’t as ferocious. And their relationship was more emotionally significant than Pi and Richard Parker’s; but then again, that was a different movie. Still, as we’re talking about similarities and connections, Life of Pi’s publicity is keen to flaunt Richard Corliss’ review which cites it as the “next Avatar”; this is a misinterpretation, more than a calculated mislead. A better point of assessment would be the delicacy of Rise of Planet of the Apes — but that too is difficult parallel, because it doesn’t compare to the overall artistry of Pi’s self-crafted palette.
The ocean-bound Pi is played by Suraj Sharma, whose role necessitates inconspicuousness and a gradual descent to a gangly physicality.
His older self, played by Irrfan Khan, has it better. As the narrator of his own retelling to a visiting novelist (Rafe Spall), Khan’s turn is reliably inviting to the story’s atmosphere. As if he’s told this story at least a thousand times, with or without partiality, and maybe a skewered fact or two.
But that is how stories go, doesn’t it. Like fables they shift to relevant meanings. Argue of mysticism, pragmatism and magnanimity, sometimes in vague, and then in decadent tones.
As far as Pi goes, Lee’s fable is as delicate and unruffled as his aesthetic. It shimmers without an air of pomposity.
Given that Pi is part finely stereoscoped 3D with one large part computer generated visual effects and savvy cinematography (by Claudio Miranda; both of which are guaranteed an Oscar nod, if not a win), the deviation from overplaying is a feat-and-a-half.
Released by Mandviwalla Entertainment, Paramount Communications and 20th Century Fox, Life of Pi is rated PG.
Despite living movies 24/7 (http://kamranjawaid.com), the writer is still truly, madly, deeply in love with cinema; the root cause of this anomaly requires further clinical trials.
He tweets @kamranjawaid
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