Ang Lee has spent four years of his life translating 'Life of Pi' to celluloid but he has no regrets. “It has been a stressful four years. I feel, without pain there is no gain. It was tremendous pleasure to be here and do the film. It was a profound experience... it was adventurous and fun.”
Many considered Yann Martel’s award-winning book, which charts Pi’s journey across the Pacific Ocean and his struggle with faith, despair and a ferocious tiger, ‘unfilmable’. After Fox Studios acquired the film rights in 2003, many including the likes of M Night Shyamalan and Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón were considered to helm the project. It took Lee almost two months before he agreed to take on the project. “I loved the book,” he says, “but it’s very hard to crack. I thought you can’t make a film about religion but it can be a film about the value of storytelling and how that brings structure and wisdom to life. This is a coming-of-age story. It’s about taking a leap of faith.”
What followed were long stretches during which nothing happened because the studio was unsure about investing millions into esoteric subject that was open to many interpretations, both literal and metaphorical. “The budget we had proposed was a lot higher than the studio had expected, so they wanted to drop the film. After all, it’s a philosophical book and a literary property. There was a time when I thought that I will not be able to make this film but I kept trying to persuade the studio.”
What also drove up the costs was Lee’s insistence that the film should be made in 3-D. In the traditional sense, the story of 'Life of Pi' doesn’t immediately scream 3-D but he had decided on the format even before adapting the book. “Everyone has very fixed ideas about 3-D. It doesn’t always have to be larger-than-life. Just because no one has made an intimate film in 3-D doesn’t mean that it can’t be done,” he explains.
Movie-making gods finally smiled at Lee when he found his younger Pi in the 17-year-old Suraj Sharma from Delhi, who had never acted before. “Suraj is absolutely God-sent. Suraj is Pi. I was having such a tough time trying to make this film. We found Suraj among 3,000 other boys who had come for audition,” recalls Lee. One of the hopefuls was Suraj’s younger brother who dragged him to audition for moral support. “He promised me a Subway sandwich, if I went with him,” remembers Suraj, with a laugh.
Suraj, who at that point was a student at Sardar Patel Vidyalaya, auditioned for a lark. “But as I kept getting called back, I really wanted to get the role,” he says matter-of-factly. His final audition with Lee in a non-descript studio in Mumbai wasn’t as smooth as he had hoped. “I kept forgetting my lines. So, Ang took over and that’s the first time he directed me.” What followed was an intensive seven days a week training for three months in Taiwan before shooting started. This included learning how to swim because the film was extensively shot in a gigantic water tank built in a hangar in Taiwan, yoga, listening to spiritual music and watching classic films.
Preparation for Older Pi, aka Irrfan, was just as intense. “I have to narrate the whole story, so I had to believe and understand it completely. I read and re-read the book so many times. But even then, it took me a while to get into character. I felt completely at sea on the first few days of the shoot,” says Irrfan.
Tabu, who had previously worked with Irrfan in Mira Nair’s 'The Namesak'e, didn’t have to think twice when Life of Pi came her way. “I have been an Ang Lee fan since the 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon' days. I wanted to move to China and learn martial arts after watching that film. Also, once I got to know the role, I knew it was something I’d manage to pull off. Having Ang to guide you makes things so much easier,” she says. Incidentally, Tabu’s performance in The Namesake was the reason why Lee offered the role of Pi’s mother to her.
Irrfan describes the experience of being directed by Lee as ‘quest, a journey, an exploration’ while Tabu, like Hollywood heavyweight Eric Bana, who Lee directed in 'The Hulk', calls him ‘a philosophical director’. “More than a character’s physicality, Lee stresses on the emotions that are going through the actor’s head. He wants to be able to see the journey in the person’s eyes.”
Lee laughs when is he called a ‘philosophical director’. “My ideas and I are not the centre of attention. A movie has a life of its own and as a director, I just initiate the process of making it. You have to be humble and tender towards the actors; admit your shortcomings and share your dreams with the actors.”