Circa 1896, when the Lumiere Brothers screened the first motion picture, people ran helter-skelter lest being run over by the fast-moving train on the screen.
Cut to 2012, when Ang Lee begins his film, Life of Pi, you almost raise your hands to touch the flocculent imagery kissed by 3D technology and later even make you duck your head, for the fear of being hit by a flying fish or attacked by a tiger.
Right from the opening credits, Life of Pi handholds you to the world of Pi Patel, played by Irrfan Khan (as an adult) and Suraj Sharma (as a teenager) and makes you embark upon his journey of life.
Irrfan Khan narrates his story to a writer played by Rafe Spall about his story of survival and legend of enlightenment. The actor makes his presence felt and commands attention.
While Pi’s ‘story of survival’ attracts the media’s attention, the ‘legend of enlightenment’ repels them. He decides to narrate both versions and leaves the listener to choose which to buy in. Thankfully, he chooses to narrate the ‘legend of enlightenment’ first.
Suraj Sharma plays the young Pi Patel. He was named ‘Piscine’, which means ‘Swimming Pool’ in French. As a kid, Piscine Patel is teased as ‘Pee’ in his school. He decides to demonstrate his mathematical prowess and defines ‘Pi’ – the mathematical constant which begins with 13.9 and becomes infinite. This incident finally earns him a respectable title of ‘Pi’.
A kid brought up in a zoo, Pi is curious about things around him; Pi finds religions more fascinating than football matches, much to the chagrin of his father (excellently played by Aadil Hussain). Suraj Sharma delivers top-notch performance. Tabu plays the role of doting mother narrating mythological stories in Tamil.
Slowly and silently, you begin to drift from your world and discover yourself in the middle of a vast ocean, in a lifeboat with Pi, a zebra, an orangutan and a tiger called Richard Parker (a name which is result of a ‘clerical error’ as Irrfan Khan’s character would like to put it).
The scene of a floating island replete with weeds and meerkats and the ocean gleaming under the moonlight and glowing fishes are easily the best sequences of the film, which will surely compel you to watch Life of Pi multiple times. Director Ang Lee and cinematographer Claudio Miranda indeed deserve a standing ovation for being able to adapt Yann Martel’s bestseller, ‘Life of Pi’ into a cinematic experience of a lifetime.
The ‘story of survival’ version is the weakest part of the film. It ends up being an unending and bland monologue which I guess was a deliberate move. The tiger can be a metaphor for your inner fears that you need to overcome, the lifeboat can be your karma, the ocean can be the world, the floating island can be your dreams (which you need to abandon and return to the world of reality), and Pi could be interpreted as your soul.
But like Irrfan Khan says, “Why interpret things? It’s just a story!” Wish it were so easy! After narrating both versions, Irrfan Khan’s character looks at the writer (Rafe Spall) and asks – “So which version do you believe in?” His response makes you nod in acquiescence, like a true believer.