“Life of Pi”… Crouching tiger, hidden drama

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.

Copyright ©2012 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

36 thoughts on ““Life of Pi”… Crouching tiger, hidden drama

  1. I think the lightness of tone may have been dictated by the film’s enormous budget. People in my theater loved the comedic touches and it will certainly help pull audiences to the film.

    On the one hand, the absence of drama meant I felt absolutely nothing at the end. On the other, I knew that any attempt at drama, considering the religious themes, would likely have been unbearable for a non-believer like me. I think the fault may be with the material too. I felt that the story just doesn’t have enough heft.

    I haven’t read the book either, so I’m hoping someone who has can tell us what they thought of the adaptation. (But the film does explain why so many people I know hate that book :D )

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  2. How did you miss the point?
    My take away “God is a story. There are many of those and which one you wish to believe is entirely a matter of your choice.” We are all just a collection of stories, anyway.

    Now, go back and read the novel.

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  3. Maybe the Booker Prize is a bit like the Oscars – all show and no substance. I still remember people in the literary world that were dismayed by the fact that Martel bested Shields (for “Unless”) for the award.

    I look forward to seeing this film, nonetheless. And what IS it about religion that seems to hit all kinds of raw nerve with agnostics and skeptics anyway? Even when it’s harmless proselytizing and preaching?

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  4. *That said, “The Vow” (for all its creepy mushy-ness and mawkish romance) was probably a better film for omitting the book’s central “faith” theme.

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  5. Sujatha, I haven’t watched the movie version, but that was how I interpreted the book as well — that some people invoke God-stories as an alternate reality is unpalatable to them. I thought the book was very well written, and found it to work on multiple levels (and I say this as an atheist).

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  6. The book and the movie cannot be separated. In my opinion, the film was made as a tribute to a literary work that is part and parcel of the psyche of a large section of the American population. It is a widely used high school English textbook and it is loved by teachers, students, parents, librarians and just about anyone who likes to read.

    In that respect, the filmmakers’ only criteria was to stay true to the book – It would have been blasphemy to do otherwise. That is why several film makers before Ang Lee were reluctant to take up the challenge.

    Having said that, Ang Lee has achieved his goal brilliantly. This is a heart-warming, lovely film that moves you. You don’t need drama or anything substantial in the film to sink your teeth into. It is not set out to tackle the big questions on screen, but to just narrate the simple story of a boy lost at sea, and let the viewer tackle the big questions in his or her own mind.

    Visual brilliance apart, Suraj Sharma’s acting was just outstanding.

    This film is a masterpiece. Don’t miss it.

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  7. I could have lived without it. Why did he have to shove in a contrived third act ( to top it all the reporter’s retelling of who’s who rang such a false note)
    On the side note , if mr. wilson was kind of the best inanimate onscreen character then richard parker would be remembered as one the greatest animated characters. I would love to believe I saw his glowing eyes in the dark of the jungle in the very last frame to have a last look at pi , but that’s wishful thinking

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  8. “Look beyond these visuals, though, and we’re left with very little”
    I think this line is appropriate for all of Ang Lee’s films. I find his films hollow and as a consequence boring.

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  9. From the time I heard one year back that ‘Life of Pi’ is being filmed by Ang Lee I had kept the book aside, to be read in the week preceding the movie. The book fresh in my memory, I assure you that you are correct on all accounts – the emotional/spiritual stuff was all edited out. Ang Lee wanted to make a PG 13 adventure story and thats the stuff he has picked from the book. Also, the book’s description of Pi’s struggle as a castaway was a lot more gruesome/cringeworthy – with lots of blood, urine, excrement (with a graphic scene of Pi tasting the tiger’s shit and half-heartedly rejecting the same as food) and the likes. So a lot of pain has been edited out. But all in all, I quite enjoyed the movie – it could be a good companion piece to the book

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  10. The movie totally did not work for me. But it might as well be a call to filmmakers around the world to take 3d movie making a little more seriously. But what’s nagging me is that a certain Mr.Kamal Hassan had very many good things to say about this movie. Whether he truly liked the movie or not is one thing, but there seems to be a general fear of calling a movie bad among the Indian, especially Tamil directors as opposed to the extremely vocal counterparts of the west. Or maybe our directors are not so sure of themselves and abstain from such things lest their ignorance be exposed.

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  11. “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”. Can’t you write in simple english?

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  12. I watched brokeback mountain before I knew who Ang Lee was and inspite of all the reservations I had for the concept, the film won me over.

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  13. This is one film which adheres very closely to the book – both in spirit and material. There are those who quibbled with the book’s Booker-worthiness and, I guess, will similarly with its screen adaptation and the Oscar-worthiness of the same. If this film could be viewed solely on its own, without the book impinging on one’s viewing, I guess your review could be a cinch. However, if you came to the movie via the book, like I do, you’ll agree that Ang Lee does a terrific job of visualizing and realizing on screen the several layers of Life of Pi: man v/s beast; man v/s God; Nature as God; the nature of Nature/God; what stories mean, how they sustain us and the nature of storytelling itself. What is a human being but a narrative construct?

    The beauty of the movie is that you can enjoy it without giving a hoot to the meta-Qs hovering in the narrative, as my 10-year-old did. And yes, Richard Parker is a stunner but Suraj Sharma as Pi was very impressive indeed.

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  14. Sujatha
    Thanks for writing this here. I am also surprised that Bharadwaj called Life of Pi a theist fantasy(in the Hindu), when it is so far away from such a description. In fact I felt the movie made it clearer than the book did with a particular dialogue. Which story do you prefer, is the crux of the movie. However it is sad when viewers dont get it. Lee made the second story very real, by making Pi state it verbatim. I get the idea. But, after the spectacular first part, I felt viewers(those who had not read the book) were not ready for the monologue. The monologue was very powerful in the book. Having said that, I loved the movie and Lee’s adaptation.

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  15. Not sure why you found the film to be hollow…it worked quite well for me…but yes i agree with you on one thing…the character that appealed the most to me was richard parker…and the CGI might have contributed quite a bit to it…coming back to the rest of the film i am not sure why you find the pretty-ization to be a shortcoming…because it is after all an interpretation of the nature that PI sees all around him…what we need to keep in mind we are hearing his interpretation of the story…so what we are witnessing might not be what actually happened…I haven’t read the book but in the end PI narrates two stories – one a dark and gritty tale of survival and the other a magical take on the same tale…it is up to the director/viewer which tale to believe in…

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  16. Found it very interesting that two people who’ve read the book (Manreet S Someshwar and Sudipta Bhattacharjee) and then seen the movie have come away with two very different responses.

    Sudipta says: “the emotional/spiritual stuff was all edited out. Ang Lee wanted to make a PG 13 adventure story and thats the stuff he has picked from the book.”

    Manreet says: “This is one film which adheres very closely to the book – both in spirit and material… Ang Lee does a terrific job of visualizing and realizing on screen the several layers of Life of Pi”

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  17. Pingback: life of Pi | uttam123's Blog

  18. I have not read the book.

    But the climax holds two stories which the boy narrates. The way i see it the sailor, cook, mother and pi were the original inhabitants of the boat and land up killing each other(cannibalism is pretty common among sailors). When Pi kills the cook he tears his soul in the demeaning act(thank Harry Potter for this kind of thinking) and lands up in a semi-schizophrenic state where he thinks Richard Parker killed the Hyena and the humans transform into animals. What if there was no tiger and it was just a figment of his imagination that keeps him on his toes and helps him survive. If this alone did not project the infinite mysteries of the human mind and is not drama enough, i don’t know what is. The carnivorous island is yet another testimony to his schizophrenic state. The unceremonious departure of Richard Parker is yet another clue. I am sure a tiger in Mexico will be a sight to behold otherwise !

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  19. Brangan – I am quite surprised at Manreet’s comment :-) Sure the adventure parts (sans the gruesome bits) was faithfully captured; but no time was spent on establishing what his family meant to him, Pi’s spiritual quests in various religions, and the dichotomy between the 2 possible stories (and the connected nuances). But in full disclosure, my immediate reaction post the movie was closer to Manreet’s view (my post on Facebook immediately post watching the movie was on those lines) – however, the more I thought about it, the more I realized how much has been chopped away to make a feel-good, visual extravaganza kind of blockbuster. Maybe my immediate reaction was triggered by the fact that some of the key adventure scenes were filmed exactly in the way I had visualized in my mind.

    Guess, you would need to read the book yourself now :-)

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  20. “We know that it’s just technology, just pixels and paint, and yet, we buy the illusion with a sharp intake of breath. ” – Ha

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  21. Vignesh – Agreed. This is pure classic storytelling and in my opinion, the spiritual and religious elements in the story are not the goal of the film. They are there to enrich the story. The stunning “other” version of the events in the end is the highlight of the story. Pi could have been schizophrenic – or in my opinion, just wonderfully imaginative enough to spin a story to conceal the cannibalism from the authorities.And when no longer able to conceal it, and overcome the emotion, breaks down to narrate the other story. Even though I read the book years ago and knew how it ended, I was still waiting for the last part of movie most eagerly. That is the victory of the film.

    Sudipta – Yes, the Pondicherry part of the book was most endearing.The book had some funny interactions between Pi and his brother, teachers, neighbours, zoo staff etc. Maybe there could have been a few more of minutes of that.

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  22. I had problem s with both the films I saw recently, Jab Tak Hai Jaan and Life of Pi, and God seem sto be the culprit in both the cases. Of course with the former it was problem hi problem with no mitigating pleasures. But thanks to a few rankling elements, Life of Pi wasn’t a completely satisfying experience either.

    Right away let me state that Life Of Pi is an awesome technical as well as storytelling achievement. The use of 3-D to create mesmerizing visuals and the use of computer graphics animation to create Richard Parker , the royal Bengal tiger is an unparalleled achievement in contemporary cinema. The droll characters of Pi’s family, the charming ambience of Puducherry, the sheer narrative bombast of a zoo being transported across the seas and the sinewy story telling involving a boy and tiger adrift mid-sea is a far too a sumptuous offering not to satisfy any film lover’s appetite

    And then you go and spoil it all by saying something stupid like ” You must believe in God because…”

    And because?

    Because it’s the better story.

    Now that raises a lot of problem.

    First, it is debatable. One could always find the story with the cook, the mother and the sailor. And it is grossly unfair not to show the other story , while presenting the preferred story in all its lovely detail, and ask us make the call.

    Secondly, just asking someone to believe in God because it is the better story is as good as saying you need not believe God if you are looking for the truth. I mean I am a non-believer, but I find Ramakrishna Paramahansa’s story very moving because he said , ‘ Yes. I can see Goddess Kali as clearly and as surely as I see you. ‘

    Thirdly, the case that one should believe in God because it is better story could have been made with any two contrasting stories, why this one? It would have made artistic sense only of the story somehow encapsulated the eternal question that Man faces. Then one could say bringing God into the picture answers the eternal questions so well., so elegantly, so beautifully, so satisfyingly. None of that happens here.

    I mean this is no The Seventh Seal.

    Fourthly, the God angle takes away from the impact of the main story which was so powerfully, so lovingly staged. There were many strands there the film could latch on to stage a climax. Richard Parker turning away without saying goodbye was one of them, especially it echoed so lyrically with Pi’s own regret at not having said a proper goodbye to Anandi. It could bea bout whether an animal could love a human , or is it just you seeing the reflection of your own love? Is it true of any love? Love of one human being for another? Love of a human being for God?

    Perhaps to win a Booker, a book must appear to be very clever and all that, but does good powerful story need the crutch of an allegory and an appendage of asking some big questions explicitly? The Castaway did not need it. The Old Man and The Sea did not need I, and Hemingway won a Nobel. And it was just the story of an old man and a fish!

    And then there is the business of carnivorous island? How does that fit with the tone of the rest of the film? I mean it just demolishes all the wonder we have been feeling about the extraordinary journey this young boy had on the sea with this tiger. The zoo animals being transported on a ship and being torn asunder in a thunderstorm was fantastic..but it was all framed in the coordinates of the real. I know. It’s magic realism and all that.

    But isn’t realism so much more magical at times?

    Old Man and the Sea anyone?

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  23. loved this line “The film could be titled From Puducherry to Purgatory, with a scenario ready to be riven by existential interrogation.”

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  24. ” Lee’s use of 3-D is so stunning and simultaneously so serene that his film makes Avatar look like a broken lava lamp.”

    Dot! :D

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  25. In general, stories w/ unreliable narrators are a cop out. I found the movie to be boring, made to pander to the multiplex going average American in the red states, rather than the art house fans on the coasts…Explains the PG-13, effects laden embarrassment of a movie if one can point an ungli at Ang Lee…

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  26. “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.”

    This is the second or third reference to “Wilson” in your reviews. If that means you like Cast Away then you’ve got company :-)

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  27. In India, as more and more movies were getting shot outside studio, there was a general feeling that Indian film making is developing. So, what do you tell about a movie which was mostly manufactured post production inside studio/office? There will come a time when actors would enact scene after scene surrounded by green cloth and locations would be fully inserted during post production. No need to go to the Alps, Kashmir, South America…Just visualize what you would like to show on screen, communicate this to the VFX team, bring together the cast and have them enact the movie in a room.

    But I have faith in god, so I am sure this will not happen. God has appeared in the form of Fellini, Padmarajan and Coppola (etc times n), he is around us in the form of Maniratnam, Anurag Kashyap, Dibakar Banerjee (etc times n). Life of Pi reiterated this faith in me. I will remember it when I go and piss after a jug of beer.

    For those who havent seen the movie, tune in to National Geographic – it has equally good visuals.

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  28. OMG how did I miss this write up!! for nearly an year I felt lonely in my opinion about the movie because everyone i know are completely blown away after watching the film! They suggested my understanding of the film is poor so I should read the book. That activity only reiterated my view of the movie. The book/movie has some wonderfully conceived and executed segments. In honesty as long as I subdued my mind from not asking the question of what is he trying to tell in the larger scheme of things, it was a good read. But, because of the God & Belief arc I felt completely cheated on the whole. I share Utkal Mohanty’s well articulated points about the God theory.

    Oh how could so many people love this movie? I wish I get to understand that someday.

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