Life of Pi is based on the book by Yann Martel. Pi is Piscine Molitor Patel, oddly named because of his uncle’s love of the great French swimming pool of the same name. Pi, in an effort to disassociate himself from Piscine – which has been shortened to Pee by troublesome classmates and unwittingly cruel teachers, reintroduces himself as Pi, the boy with the amazing ability to remember the mathematical number Pi (Π), and write the infinitely long string of numbers that make Pi, down on many blackboards at school.
Pi’s father, a man with a head for business runs a small zoo in Pondicherry. When the zoo goes broke, and the family decides to move to Canada, they along with their animals travel by ship to their new home country. A storm sinks the ship, leaving Pi, an orangutan, a zebra, a hyena, and a tiger named Richard Parker on a lifeboat – the only survivors. After a few weeks only Pi and Richard Parker remain, and Pi must use his wits to ensure that he doesn’t become Richard Parker’s next meal.
The film is told flashback fashion by Pi, now a grown man (Irfan Khan) to a visitor who has been sent to him, because Pi apparently has a remarkable story to tell. Pi, over a leisurely lunch of home-cooked food, narrates the tale of his floating for 273 days on a lifeboat with only a very hungry Bengal tiger for company. And that’s the nuts and bolts of the story. Now, because the film is directed by Ang Lee, we expect much more than the basics, and Ang Lee delivers them to us, in great big philosophical flourishes.
Much of the film’s time is spent telling us of the time Pi and Richard Parker spend together on the boat, one trying to eat and the other trying to avoid being eaten. Earlier in the film, we have been shown that Richard Parker is not some tame tiger, but a wild creature who will eat Pi at the earliest opportunity, if Pi lets his guard down even for an instant. Ah, but Pi is alone, but a boy, bemoaning the loss of his parents and his brother and plaintively weeping that he misses them.
The journey is thus fraught with danger for Pi. But it is also imbued with a delicate solitary beauty. Some stunning cinematography combined with Ang Lee’s poetic vision turn the boat into a serene vessel floating on calm, beautiful seas. Richard Parker is mostly CGI although shots of a real tiger were used in some places, and Ang Lee manages to convey to us the pitiable state of the tiger – a carnivore who can rend Pi from end to end.
Suraj Sharma is very good as the young Pi, afraid yet intent on keeping himself alive. I realize that And Lee frames the story almost as a philosophical allegory, and maybe that is why, but Pi’s predicament didn’t quite touch me. Sharma is at times angry, lonely, desperate and wily, but his emotion didn’t quite get through. Tabu as his mother Geeta Patel, and Adil Khan as his father are able actors and do justice do their roles, but like Sharma’s portrayal I found theirs tamped down as though conscious of being a part of an allegory where distant emotion was called for.
Irfan Khan as the adult Pi, and narrator, appears to be a man changed by his sojourn with Richard Parker. He appears learned and calm as though holding a greater knowledge within him. His visitor is filled with wonder hearing the story and muses whether it is indeed true; Pi cannot tell him for sure. Indeed I take the film entirely as an allegory, a metaphor for life itself, but can’t quite countenance the mumbo-jumbo which goes with making Easter philosophy and Eastern people so imbued with it. It reminds me of this American teacher I met who told me that he and his friends went to India, to Varanasi in particular, in search of what I believe they call salvation – a path to happiness. He talked of the holy men they encountered and the ghats, and the poverty they saw – I don’t believe he was any wiser because of it – more resigned and cynical maybe. Apparently the reservoir for true knowledge is somewhere in impoverished India, if only we could weave into a pretty enough story with great effects.
So I remain unimpressed with the film; if you must, read the book instead.