DIRECTED BY ANG LEE
STARRING: SURAJ SHARMA, IRRFAN KHAN, ADIL HUSSAIN, TABU, RAFE SPALL, SHRAVANTHI SAINATH and GERARD DEPARDIEU
Let me tell you a story. There’s this family of four that relocates to Canada from India, selling their zoo off and taking along a couple of dozen species on a cargo ship as a livelihood option. The Father, the Mother, the Elder brother and Pi. The cook on board is French and compulsively mean, and there’s a Buddhist who offers rice with plain gravy – meat is murder, the family maintains; the cook would kill for food that he serves on the ship. It is a cycle, we presume, only one turn of which we get to see.
The family goes to sleep. Pi doesn’t. Not only are thunderstorms sources of entertainment, they also save lives. Pi becomes the sole survivor of a shipwreck, illustrated in what could be the most glorious shot since that of the Titanic sinking. 3D brings the dark out in the spectacle – we see only 50 percent of what Pi would’ve seen. Ang Lee shows us that the beauty of disaster lies not in scale-up but a close-in: You feel what you experience, you experience what you’re put in a boat with. A cook, a staunch Buddhist and your Mother.
Besides the fact that Pi Patel (Suraj Sharma) has too much water in his life than his lungs can hold, besides the fact that he, when 12 years old, throws his ‘soul’ around like the goats offered to his highness, Mr. Parker; besides the fact that there are so many little details we brush aside to get to the ideological depth of the movie – like how Pi is clean-shaven, Italian mafia-styled, after months at sea with his follicles active everywhere else; like how the faux-Tamil accent, the most ridiculous thing in the world, is used to establish overdone stereotypes – the Father, the Mother, the Older brother, the Dancer girl whom Pi likes and who likes him back...
Besides all these things mentioned above, ‘Life of Pi’ is the story of a human coming face to face with the spectacle - Pi, before the world, and you, the viewer, before the film. Now, let me give you more of the story before I proceed to comment.
The Buddhist breaks his leg and badly with his jump onto the boat. Its decay is disintegration of whatever humanness might’ve existed otherwise. And it brings the Cook out – the pointless racist, a man who is considered pure evil. Brotherhood is as Brotherhood does, and the Buddhist becomes a three-course meal that Pi and his Mother take no part in as, obviously, they are vegetarians. It’s only about time that the Cook turns to the other two on board, both willing to throw their lives down for the other.
Anyway, if the Harry Potter books have taught us anything, it’s that a Boy needs to suffer the guilt of having survived to become a Man who doesn’t care for survival – it’s the dawn of morality. The Mother goes down fighting, the Man is unleashed at that. “I did to the Cook what he did to the Buddhist guy,” Pi recounts to the people from the company who, after 227 days of life at sea, aren’t willing to buy this plausible an explanation. “It’s too simple,” they say. “We want an experience, not an excuse. A spectacle, not a solution. We want bizarre – not boring.” I’m paraphrasing, of course. They call it the ‘truth.’ They seek it.
So he tells them another story, like Poirot does in ‘Murder on the Orient Express.’ The Cook becomes a Hyena, the Mother becomes an Orangutan; the Buddhist becomes a wounded Zebra, and Pi becomes Richard Parker, the Tiger, whom he watches from the side and encounters as both adversary and thickest friend. This time, there are whales, flying fish; a carnivorous island populated with nothing but meerkats. The people from the Company buy it – if Romanticism was truth, they’ve had their share. They leave happy with Pi distraught at having watched the Tiger, a reflection of his own self, disappear into the wilderness without a growl to say goodbye.
Pi narrates this story as an adult to a writer, a version of Yann Martel, the author of the Booker-winning novel. He is played by Irrfan Khan, an exciting actor (except that his accent butchers language) who paints both sides with performance you can buy. The question, as it seems, is what you choose to believe. Like on the Orient Express, one story has the power of sequences to back. The other is a monologue with the camera closing in, where, in delirium brought out by grief, we see genuineness. On the Orient Express, they choose to ‘decide.’ Is it a decision? If it is, then the film has achieved what it aspired for – to be as ruthless as the Cook in a man-eat-man world. Life has been thrust upon us, it says. So are you, I’d say in return.
Pi asks the writer what he chooses to believe. I do not think his answer would be the same as that he used in ‘Life of Pi.’ It is not merely a flip of sequence and monologue – it is a decision. Romanticism against bitter truth, which, nonetheless, is also Romantic. The road never forks. ‘Mulholland Drive’ is ambiguous – ‘Life of Pi’ isn’t. The stories cannot be inter-changed unless you have decided to, and your decisions shall suffice. The stories are redundant. ‘Life of Pi’ wastes your time. It is not argumentative. It double-sells a stance that it has already taken.
After having taken the pains to open the oyster, you don’t find the pearl where you’re told its absence is wisdom. Much like this review of mine – after almost a thousand words, I have given you nothing. Except for the fact that I shall take a stance but also tell you about it. It doesn’t make my argument stronger, but I believe it’d make the experience comforting.
Like the 3D in this film. ‘Life of Pi’ is probably the best of its kind; an incredible human adventure as a Boy who, I think, represents you and does well at that. It is sincere with its rendition of an irksome narrative that wins your attention but doesn't deserve it. It’s a choice made in full awareness of an existing argument happening elsewhere, in a different story. And after two hours invested, you’re a survivor yourself and I’d think you deserve that story. Not this one.