A boy, a boat and a tiger

DEC 11 -

Ang Lee has expressly evaded categorisation as a filmmaker, leaping from genre to genre, avoiding the constraints of a ‘signature’ style or subject. A voracious appetite for diversity has resulted in an interesting two-decade plus career span for the director, one that has been boosted by many a winner—like the martial arts wonder Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, or the breakthrough same-sex love story that was Brokeback Mountain—alongside being humbled by the occasional dud like 2003’s Eric Bana-starring Hulk. With his newest project, Life of Pi, the much-talked about screen adaptation of what was deemed Yann Martel’s ‘unfilmable’ Man Booker prize-winning book, we find that Lee has taken yet another step into strange lands, creating a film so abundant in lush, luminous tableaux that it gives new meaning to the phrase ‘feast for the eyes.’ But while your eyes might practically overdose on stimulation, Life of Pi, disappointingly, doesn’t have anywhere close to the same effect on your consciousness.

Pi Patel’s tale begins in the coastal town of Pondicherry, India, where his family owns a zoo. A precocious child, Pi (played here by Ayush Tandon) is very fond of the animals, and feels a bond with them—particularly the newest recruit, a fully mature Bengal tiger with the odd name of Richard Parker—something his rationalist father, part of the burgeoning ‘new India’, is eager to dissuade. This debate between father and son, between a scientific worldview and a spiritual one, between fact and faith, is what lies at the centre of the story. To add to his father’s worries, Pi is also increasingly drawn towards religion, all religions; he actually becomes a practicing Hindu, Christian and Muslim altogether, because, as he explains at one point, “Religion is a house with many rooms.”

When Pi is in his teens (now played by Suraj Sharma), financial troubles compel the Patels to sail to Canada. The animals are brought along with them onboard, but their voyage is cut short by a terrible storm. Pi finds himself thrown onto a lifeboat and into the water, his family nowhere to be seen. When the storm final passes, and the freighter has sunk entirely, Pi discovers that he isn’t alone on the boat—there is an orangutan, a zebra, a hyena, and of course, the fearsome Richard Parker, for company. As they float on the Pacific for days on end, most of this makeshift crew dies out, until only the boy and the tiger remain. Pi, already battling hunger, thirst, loneliness, and growing despair, must now negotiate his relationship with Richard Parker if they are to co-exist. And over the next hour or so, we are shown how the dynamics between man and beast shift and evolve, and how surprisingly essential each ultimately becomes to the other’s survival—sequences that constitute Life of Pi’s most riveting and humourous, and ultimately melancholy, moments.

The film uses a framing device where the story is relayed by an adult Pi (Irrfan Khan) to a writer (Rafe Spall), a structure that while necessary in establishing the premises, feels perfunctory. But Lee has ensured that shifts between the present and the past are achieved smoothly, using creative transitions. Besides, most of the film has, wisely, been dedicated to young Pi’s oceanic preoccupations; starting with the sinking of the ship, a shaky, frenetic sequence that will have you tossing with the waves, we’re taken into a vividly-coloured and very unpredictable watery realm—the sea is a character unto its own, sometimes rabid, sometimes as still as a mirror, a repository of unimaginable life forms, and always very much alive. This midsection is a visual banquet—a ginormous whale erupts suddenly into the air, jellyfish float like eerie, fluorescent lamps and entire islands glow mysteriously. It is to the credit of cinematographer Claudio Miranda and production designer David Gropman that Lee has been able to achieve such poetry in his rendering of the natural world—ironic, however, given that it was all crafted by technology. And nowhere is this paradox more apparent than in the case of the tiger; for a figment of digital imagination, Richard Parker is incredibly, unbelievably lifelike.

Pi is also an instance of the wonders that can emerge of 3D technology when taken up by someone who has acquainted himself rigorously with its possibilities. Unlike other films (the latest Spider-Man, say), where the added dimension felt like an afterthought, here is it used to great—if sometimes gimmicky—advantage. What it does is emphasise not only on the vastness of the ocean, but on the frailty of the little boat in comparison, hitting home the kind of confinement in which Pi and his companion find themselves, and deepening our sense of their peril.

As much as one marvels at how stunning Pi looks, emotional resonance is weak here, The overarching message about surrendering to divine will is pushed down our throats sans any attempt at subtlety, to the point where every time Khan appears onscreen to deliver yet another smug homily on ‘connecting to the almighty,’ you’re willing him to rush it so you can get back to the boat, and back to the more engaging adventure at hand. Not having read the book, I wouldn’t know if moral themes were just as simplistically presented in the source material as well, but as far as the film is concerned, its philosophical and theological ruminations are too clinical, and thereby ineffective. Thankfully, these bits are cut short, and if you try hard enough, you can pretend they were never there in the first place.

I can’t recommend Life of Pi enough, especially while it’s still running in theatres, because this is a cinematic experience that calls to be seen on a big screen, as big as possible. It might not exactly offer any marked spiritual insight or even linger in your memory for too long a time after (you’d probably have to read the book for that sort of impact), but for the few hours that you’re watching it, in a darkened theatre, eyes shielded by clunky glasses and all, you’ll be immersed completely in this breathtakingly beautiful world of Lee’s making, and you will love it.

Posted on: 2012-12-11 08:31