Life of Pi opens to Bombay Jayashri’s voice lilting a lullaby, as the camera follows a collection of the most exotic animals that shared screen space outside of National Geographic. This farm, we know, is so impossible in Pondicherry that, already, even before we hear of Francis Mamaji who was born with a wide chest and skinny legs, we’ve been brought to the edge of magic realism.
This is the story of a boy delivered by a herpetologist, named after a Parisian swimming pool, introduced to a trinity of religious trinities, and left adrift with a zebra, an orangutan, a hyena, and a tiger in the middle of the Pacific ocean. We meet the boy when he’s in his fifties, making wisecracks about the guilt “Catholic Hindus” carry around, as he tells his tale to an author (Rafe Spall) seeking fellowship in the wake of a novel that “sputtered, coughed and died”.
The character of the writer is presumably taken from Yann Martel’s Acknowledgments in the novel, where he mentions India being a cheaper place to live in than Portugal.
And the film finds its voice through juxtaposition of the past with the present, given coherence by the narrative of the adult Pi (Irrfan Khan). The tones of the colour palette change as we move from the sixties to the seventies to the millennium, from Pondicherry to the high seas to Montreal.
I can’t recall when a more beautiful film was made based on a brooding fantasy novel. And this one is arguably better than the book, because it builds on it.
Here, we don’t see just one aspect of the life of Pi, but his whole life – his family, his first love, his philosophical preoccupations, his adventure, his guilt, his sorrow, his new life. In the poetic fluidity of the film, the allegory of life and devotion that is the premise of the book draws us in. It isn’t cloying, it’s heartbreaking. It isn’t optimistic, it’s incidental. This isn’t an adventure, it’s life.
Somehow, Ang Lee makes us laugh far more often than the script warrants. Sometimes, it’s the genius of lines like, “Thank you, Vishnu, for introducing me to Christ”. Sometimes, it’s the timing of as simple a word as “idiot”. Sometimes, it’s a manual for survival that suggests “community singing” as a way to keep one’s hopes up. Most often, it’s the seamless manner in which the screenplay guides the actors, so that every coincidence irrationally pushes the story further into the realm of credibility. Among my favourite scenes is that of the family’s reaction to Pi’s search for religion. Another is the manner in which Piscine changes his name to ‘Pi’, convincing his schoolmates of it – though that’s slightly marred by his getting the value of pi wrong.
Even in his small role, Adil Hussain, playing a polio-afflicted zoo owner, shows us what a fine actor he is. And Tabu, except for the atrocious Tamil she speaks (seriously, why not dub?), is a decent fit.
But the revelation in the film is young Suraj Sharma, who outshines Irrfan Khan, to make our memory of the teenage Pi more abiding than that of the adult Pi. He never hams, even when he has to do the most ridiculous things.
With a script that is so restrained, the overwhelming beauty of the film truly touches the audience. The graphics are so well done we can rarely make out how much of it is CGI.