The mind can only take in a finite amount of distress and there are some who have self-destructed in the abyss of insanity or addiction. Others have found release in writing, exercising, music, art or religion and spirituality, both of which play a key role in Taiwan-born, American director Ang Lee’s beautiful adaptation of the The Life of Pi, the
Unlike the dread-locked backpackers who followed the hippie trail to India looking for nirvana/God or drug-fuelled High, the French Canadian author found a luminous faith amidst the encircling gloom of violence and corruption.
Pi then, is Martel’s fictional self, a seeker on a quest for spiritual truth and embodies the best and noblest of Hindus (like Gandhiji or Ramakrishna Paramahamsa) who identify with aspects from other religions. Unlike Gandhi, The Life of Pi does not examine why question of why religions differ from one another.
But we’ll let that pass and tell you that our hero, our brave, sweet, loveable Pi or Piscine Molitor Patel, whose name after a swimming pool in France comes in for much ribbing, is played by four people: Gautam Belur at age 5, Ayush Tandon, followed by the teenaged first time actor Suraj Sharma (who bagged the role when he accompanied his actor brother to the auditions) and finally by Irrfan Khan in adulthood. All four capture Pi’s sweetness, goodness and courage.
The film begins with a nameless writer (Rafe Spall) interviewing the adult Pi (Khan) in the hope of overcoming his atheism. Pi then tells him his story.(And what a meta- tale of sound and fury it is, signifying something crucial: human endurance, true grit and the power of faith and imagination).
Pi traces his childhood to the erstwhile French enclave of Pondicherry where he was raised by his mother (Tabu, beautiful and surprisingly impassive in the dining room sequences) and zoo-keeper father (Adil Hussein) who eventually decides to move to Canada via a Japanese cargo ship. Patel Senior is liberal and strict in turn at home, and displays the Typical Indian’s caste/class sensibility in a minor fracas with the ship’s cook(French superstar Gerard Depardieu).
Soon, for reasons that are never clear, the freighter sinks in a raging storm in the Pacific and Pi finds himself adrift on a frail raft/lifeboat with a hyena, zebra, orangutan, and a tiger named Richard Parker.
A Darwinian struggle for survival ends with puny human and ferocious tiger in an uneasy coexistence till the lifeboat lands on a surreal island populated by adorable meerkats. Eventually, Pi is washed up on a beach and Richard Parker vanishes into the jungle. But is that the truth, the whole truth, so help us God? Truth, what is truth asked Pilate who did not stay for an answer.
For this reviewer, The Life of Pi interrogates animal (Jain/ Buddhist/ Aesopian) fable as a metaphor for the human condition. The movie doesn’t instil a belief in the God Pi so fervently adores. What it does do is recall parables/ fables embodying the Zen Buddhist/ Jain worldview.
Pi’s chief antagonist, the tiger represents the past, fear and stress in our lives that interfere with our longing to live in harmony. In Jainism, ordinary people are invariably swimming in the sea with the ultimate goal of crossing it to attain nirvana. In the Bible, the God-created sea (of Genesis) becomes the abode of the monster Leviathan (referenced in the Books of Job, Isaiah, and the Psalms).
Pi is Job-like in his suffering and endurance but his Pacific has no Leviathan, only soaring whales, and luminescent and flying fishes. Cinematographer Claudio Miranda employs Zen minimalism in marvellous (underwater) shots of the sky reflected in the sea, the gorgeously illuminated waters at night in Pondy or the beautiful starry firmament, the boat seemingly at rest on the still ocean or spectacularly suspended in the air; why, you would never know these scenes were shot inside huge water tanks in Taiwan.
Clearly, Lee is a talented, resourceful and understanding filmmaker, Mychael Donna’s grand orchestral score combining Western and Indian music is memorable. Children, it must be said, may get frightened by the stormy goings on. But the exquisite visuals in glorious 3D are what makes the Life of Pi an eminently watchable experience.