Directed By: Ang Lee
Starring: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Adil Hussain
Line from the film: "I suppose in the end, the whole of life becomes an act of letting go, but what always hurts the most is not taking a moment to say goodbye"
Trivia: Suraj Sharma never intended to audition for the film. He went to a casting call to support his brother, and beat out more than 3,000 hopefuls for the lead role
A lot of time and effort was devoted to bringing author Yann Martel’s 2001 fantasy / adventure novel Life of Pi to the big screen. After passing through the fingers of several directors, including M. Night Shyamalan (who also wrote a version of its screenplay) and Alfonso Cuarón, Ang Lee joined the production in 2009, and then spent the next three years of his life making this movie a reality. From its casting (over 3,000 young men auditioned for the part of the 16-year-old lead before Suraj Sharma, a teen with no acting experience, was selected) to the complexities of its ocean-bound scenes (for which a 1.7 million gallon wave tank was built in an abandoned airport in Taiwan) to its marvelous special effects (accomplished through the combined efforts of companies in Los Angeles, Malaysia, India, Taiwan and Canada), Life of Pi was a gargantuan project, and thanks to Lee and his exceptional team, this story of a boy and his tiger has become one of the 21st century’s most visually impressive motion pictures.
The movie opens with an adult Pi (Irrfan Kahn) meeting with author Yann Martel (Rafe Spall), who’s interested in turning Pi’s amazing adventure into a book. Pi Patel, whose real name is Piscene (he changed it to “PI” years earlier when schoolmates started calling him “Pissing”), grew up in India’s Pondicherry district, where his father (Adil Hussain) owned and operated a state-sponsored zoo. As a boy, PI (played as a 5-year-old by Guatam Belur and an 11-year-old by Ayush Tandon) showed an interest in a number of organized religions, including Hindu, which he learned from his mother (played by Tabu); Catholicism; and Islam, all of which contributed to his strong belief in God.
It was in his teenage years that Pi’s father announced he was moving the family to Canada, where he’d found someone interested in buying the zoo’s various animals, including the dangerous Bengal tiger they called “Richard Parker” (named after the man who captured him). Though unhappy to be leaving both India and his girlfriend Anandi (Shravanthi Sainath), Pi (now played by Sharma), his parents, and his older brother Ravi (Vibish Sivakumar) joined the zoo animals aboard a Japanese freighter bound for North America.
Then, a few days out of Manila, tragedy struck when, during a thunderstorm, the ship was severely damaged and began to sink. Pi, who had gone above to watch the storm, attempted to save his family, only to realize their cabin was already submerged. In the chaos that ensued, Pi, along with a stray zebra, found himself aboard one of the ship’s lifeboats. Alone in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, he and the zebra were eventually joined by a Hyena, an orangutan, and the tiger, Richard Parker. Before long, Pi and Richard Parker were the only ones left alive, and during their many weeks at sea, the industrious young man did everything he could to keep the tiger alive, knowing at all times that the enormous, bad-tempered Richard Parker would have gladly made him its next meal.
From start to finish, Life of Pi is an amazing motion picture, with images so awe-inspiring that you won’t believe your eyes; the scenes shot on-location in India (including one of a religious ceremony that featured thousands of lit candles) are absolutely gorgeous. That said, the film’s most spectacular moments occur while the title character and the tiger, Richard Parker, are alone at sea, clinging to life aboard a tiny boat (to stay safe, Pi constructs a makeshift raft, which allows him to float a few yards behind the lifeboat, out of the tiger’s reach). Many of these sequences are beyond stunning, like the night a giant whale makes its presence known, or when Pi and his traveling companion are pelted by a school of flying fish. Even a simple long shot, showing the duo drifting in the middle of the vast ocean, takes on a special significance, and the CGI that brings the tiger, as well as the other animals and fish, to life is among the best I’ve ever seen (I never knew which shots of Richard Parker were of the real-life tiger used to portray him, and which were generated by a computer).
Of course, you need a good story to go along with all that beauty, and Life of Pi has just that, telling a fascinating tale of survival that, in turn, is a moving portrait of a man whose faith never wavers. It’s this, combined with all the visual splendor and a stirring performance by Sharma (whose inexperience never once shows through), that helps Life of Pi stretch the boundaries of motion picture creativity to their farthest point, crafting, in the process, a film for the ages.