“Life of Pi”… Crouching tiger, hidden drama

Posted on November 24, 2012

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The point of interest in Ang Lee’s Life of Pi isn’t what it does with the book by Yann Martel (which I haven’t read), but what it confirms about today’s movies – that no image is too fantastical to be committed convincingly to screen. The computer is to cinema what the imagination is to books. The eerie calm of a bioluminescent sea, at night, is shattered by a breaching whale, while stars shimmer in the horizon like stage lights positioned by God – it’s primal theatre. We know that it’s just technology, just pixels and paint, and yet, we buy the illusion with a sharp intake of breath. Even the more earthly imagery – a shot from the bottom of a swimming pool whose water is so clear as to be invisible (the swimmer seems to be floating on air); the cobweb at a corner of the frame as a brilliantly feathered toucan preens at the centre – is transcendent. Lee’s use of 3-D is so stunning and simultaneously so serene that his film makes Avatar look like a broken lava lamp.

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Look beyond these visuals, though, and we’re left with very little, which is somewhat surprising in a film that sets out to tackle the biggest of Big Questions. It isn’t for nothing that the protagonist is named Pi, after the mathematical constant that, in its decimal form, is an endless stream of numbers. It is infinite, like a certain perception of God. And God is everywhere in this story – in the stories of Krishna that Pi’s mother (Tabu) narrates; in the various religions that Pi subsequently affixes himself to; in the teenaged Pi’s choice of reading (Camus and Dostoevsky, who wrestled with rather tortured belief systems); in the professed postulation that faith is a house with many windows; in a lost boy’s cry of surrender (“God I give myself to you”); in the “carnivorous island” that, in long shot, resembles a reclining deity; in the cosmic contrivances that steer a novelist to his next plot or save a youngster from death; and in the premise of this fable-like narrative itself, which promises to make believers of skeptics.

And how could He not be present in a story about a zookeeper’s son who is shipwrecked and forced to share a lifeboat with a tiger for 227 days, which is its own kind of eternity? (Pi is played as a teenager by Suraj Sharma, and as an adult by an excellent Irrfan Khan, whose Indian-in-North America accent is just perfect, with every syllable borne on a gust of breath, as if pumped out by a pair of bellows in the throat.) The film’s early portions are set in “the French Riviera” of south India, which is romanticised as some sort of antediluvian wonderland. (Appropriately enough, I suppose, given all the water that lies ahead.) These meditatively paced scenes, barring some questionable enunciations, are a treat for Tamil audiences, the highlight being an exquisite lullaby voiced by Bombay Jayashri; and fans of Sivaji Ganesan may rejoice in his appearance, finally, in a Hollywood blockbuster, even if it’s only through a Vasantha Maaligai poster. But after this idyllic heaven, boy and beast are torn from their shelters and cast into hell. The film could be titled From Puducherry to Purgatory, with a scenario ready to be riven by existential interrogation.

For instance, what is man but an animal? Forced to find food for the tiger, Pi fashions a net, nabs a fish and pounds it to death. He rejoices briefly, but is struck by sorrow when he stares into the creature’s dead eyes. We’ve been told, earlier, that the human characteristics we imagine in animals are a reflection, in their eyes, of our own emotions – and what Pi sees now is his reduction to this atavistic self. (And he’s a vegetarian.) In another startling scene, the tiger is seated calmly, like a human, while Pi is crouched like a cat. But these revelations are rare. For the most part, Pi is remarkably self-possessed, with survival tools in hand. And God takes care of the rest. When Pi is thirsty, it rains. When he’s hungry, food comes swimming by. (Or flying by. Cue, special effects of winged fish.) Even the shark fins knifing the waters pose no real threat. We could be on an adventure safari.

The problem, most likely, stems from opening out a mostly ruminative book into an extravagant movie. (And it does seem to be a book studded with semi-precious literary touches – from Irrfan Khan daring us to label him an unreliable narrator to the irony of a boy named after a swimming pool in Paris finding himself afloat in the worlds’ largest body of water.) But Lee doesn’t help, either, by prettifying everything at the expense of drama. There’s nothing to sink your teeth into, and we’re left with the feeling that Lee’s ambition was simply to capture, through today’s technology, every animal on earth, every phantasmagorical vista in the skies – the facile combination of menagerie and mysticism makes the film look like the curious offspring of James Herriot and Carlos Castaneda. There’s lots of spectacle (the children in my theatre were delighted), but little soul. At its best, Life of Pi plays like an odd-couple comedy. There’s nothing here as wrenching as Tom Hanks’s plight in Cast Away. And his costar was a volleyball.

Suraj Sharma is an able enough physical presence, but he’s too raw a performer to carry off the monologue at the end, which makes us reconsider everything that’s come earlier. The tiger, though, is wonderful. It isn’t just the physical fact of the animal, at first snarling and powerful and eventually an emaciated wreck. The tiger, digitally rendered with such wizardry that we feel like reaching out and stroking its springy whiskers, is also the only character in the film with a palpable inner life. It must be those eyes, which reflect our own emotions  without lapsing into cutesy Disneyfication. When this tiger falls into the ocean and struggles to clamber back onto the lifeboat, it’s one of the film’s few moments where we feel something, where we care, where we root for someone’s triumph. That a creature caged inside a computer should evoke such emotion is a testament to the omnipotence of today’s special-effects artists. God, in Hollywood, is less a manifestation of infinity than ones and zeroes.

An edited version of this piece can be found here.

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