Review: Life of Pi
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Director: Ang Lee
Indian Express Rating: ***1/2
A boy, and a tiger, and a vast, endless ocean. Ang Lee makes a film out of material that seems almost unfilmable, and a lot of it is quite wondrous. What stops it from being completely spectacular is the director's faltering with the cultural specificities of being Indian. So what you get is a not-so-satisfactory beginning, a gorgeous middle, and a too-sedate ending.
Based on Yann Martel's prize winning novel, Life Of Pi tells the story of the strangely-named Piscine Monitor. Pi lives with his family in Pondicherry where his father (Husain) owns a zoo, his mother (Tabu) hovers protectively over him as he learns harsh life lessons, and a brother. Stranger circumstances take Pi and his family out into the middle of the stormy Pacific Ocean, and in short order, Pi finds himself alone on a life boat with a tiger named Richard Parker.
Here begins the real film, as Lee pares down everything to the elements: the boy, the beast, the sky, and the waters. And that's where we begin to see how masterly Lee can be with creating a parable about life and death and the whole insignificance of the existence thing: through the boy's struggles to stay alive as he fashions a raft out of ropes and plastic, learns to fend off a full-grown Bengal tiger, and slowly sheds weight till he is nearly skin and bones. We see the larger picture where the boy's despairing cries for his 'amma' and 'appa' change into a voiceless dialogue with the almighty, who could be, in Pi's multi-religious piety, Bhagwan, Jesus, and Allah.
The film makes great use of 3D, and for once I was not cursing: the ocean's immersiveness and the overpowering emptiness and the sheer beauty surrounding Pi is enhanced by the technology. What is wonderful is how Pi, played by the excellent Suraj Sharma is never allowed to become too precious or to make a pet out of Richard Parker: the nature of the beast is not meddled with, in the name of magic realism. And while I did fall out of the film a couple of times during this watery tryst, I stayed quite enchanted with the way the film looks and feels.
Where Life Of Pi becomes unsatisfactory is in its bookends. The epilogue, which shows us the boyhood of Pi, is a little too exotic, the accented English of his mother and father a tad exaggerated, and a dining table conversation a trifle artificial: it's nice to see Tabu back on screen even though her role is small, and her Tamil accent inept. Husain is also given an accent,but he fares better, and stays consistent. Irrfan, as the middle aged Pi who gets to open and close the film, is Irrfan, the go-to guy that internationally acclaimed directors choose for roles such as these. He does his job well, though, and leads us in and out as good actors do.
But the film fares best with the growing relationship of boy and beast (the tiger is skilfully computer generated but has great personality: there are apparently shots of real tigers in the film, though it is very hard to tell between the real and the not-real). And this toss-up between the two is, in a sense, a leitmotif that runs through the film: were Pi and Parker adrift for 227 days (as the novel tells us), or was it just an imagined thread? The tussle between the two, which leads to initial tension and then a life-affirming coming to terms, is what makes the film, this part of it, unforgettable.