On a beautiful Sunday evening in Calgary, I expected the movie hall to be half-empty, knowing how perfect the weather was….and also knowing that this film would appeal only to a niche audience. (If you only enjoy Transformers or Hangover, stop reading right here!)
So on one hand, I was not surprised. The hall was indeed half-empty. But what happened thereafter took me entirely by surprise.
How often does one get to be part of an audience that immerses itself into a movie as a single, composite entity? Where everyone leans forward and gasps at the correct places? Where everyone holds their breath together? Or gets each subtle joke in the narrative? How often can you experience a movie without at least one phone screen lighting up or a shrill ring disturbing the otherwise surreal atmosphere?
I had the rare experience to be a part of such an audience last weekend while watching Life of Pi. Let that be said before and beyond anything else is said about this movie.
Now to the movie itself.
It is based on Yann Martel’s Booker Prize winner novel of the same name. Despite delving into lofty themes of God, beliefs, survival, and life itself, it avoids getting preachy or dogmatic.
With Ang Lee as a director for such a movie, I could hardly wait to see the result.
The title credits roll with the backdrop of a zoo in Pondicherry where a young Pi (debutant Suraj Sharma) lives with his parents and his brother. Then the story begins with the adult Pi (Irrfan Khan) narrating his extraordinary childhood adventure to a would-be writer (Rafe Spall) who has come to him in search of a story – a story that would make him believe in God.
Pondicherry looks magical and beautiful, and India and (Indianness) is portrayed with a lot more nuance and understanding than most Indian movies seem to show lately.
When Pi is 16-year old, he, along with his family, leaves for Canada on board a Japanese cargo ship. The ship sinks while crossing the Pacific Ocean, and Pi finds himself on a lifeboat along with an injured zebra, a hyena, an orangutan – and a fierce Bengal tiger called Richard Parker. Pi watches in horror as the hyena kills the helpless zebra and the orangutan, and is then killed by the tiger. Most of the movie unfolds aboard a makeshift raft tethered to the lifeboat. Pi stays on the raft to protect himself from the tiger in the boat.
A large part of the movie shows how Pi manages to survive with the fearsome tiger, while keeping both of them alive for 227 days on the wide ocean until their boat washes ashore on a Mexican beach. Along the way, they face untold hardships. They even find a magical island when they’re near death due to starvation, and landing there helps them survive that difficult time.
Yet this is not a typical survival story. It is not just about the helplessness and agony of being stranded on the wide ocean, all the while protecting oneself from one’s fierce companion while simultaneously providing for him. We also get to see the power and grandeur of nature, and how small – yet how brave – can the human spirit be when placed in an impossible situation.
This is a movie that must be watched in 3D. Being swept under a majestic night sky, thousands of miles from any other human being, can show how being alone is fearsome yet empowering.
The movie ends with the adult Pi disclosing to the writer that he had told two different versions of his story to the Japanese investigators who were trying to find why the ship sank. The investigators did not believe Pi’s story with the tiger – it had sounded too far-fetched to them. So he told them another story where the injured zebra was an injured sailor, the hyena was the cook, the orangutan was Pi’s mother, and Richard Parker, Pi himself!
And then he asks the writer which story he believes is true.
When the writer makes his choice, Pi smiles. Then he adds, “And so it is with God.” And the movie draws to an end.
Many people find this somewhat offensive, as if the story is pushing God to them, whether or not they want to believe in one. But that is not what the story is about. Like the writer, we all have a choice – to believe in whichever story makes sense to us. Some might prefer the tiger story, some, the other one. Neither story can be proven right or wrong, and one would be wasting one’s time fighting over it. And as Pi says, “So it is with God!” Who cares what someone else believes in! Like the writer, we all have a choice.
So which story did I believe? The one with the tiger or the one with other humans?
It hardly matters. Choosing one or the other was not quite the point. It was rather about choices – and the ability to choose.
Like the small raft on an ocean, we too are adrift in life, essentially alone – facing fear and pain, as well as beauty. What we make of that journey depends on each one of us individually. The tiger represents our dark side – which every one of us possesses, and which emerges when the circumstances are ripe. Its force might keep us alive, yet we must constantly guard ourselves against it, lest it consume us – just like the tiger would have consumed Pi had Pi been less vigilant.
To me, that is what the story is about. That, and the power of goodbyes. Or, not quite being able to say goodbyes and learning to make peace with that as well.
This movie could not have been reviewed without the philosophy. But don’t go by my philosophy. Go watch the movie – and choose yours! You’ll be glad you did.
Go also for the grand and breath-taking cinematography, and the equally magnificent CGI effects. Watch it also for Suraj Sharma’s acting – the young newcomer carries the movie on his shoulders.
I would be very much surprised if this movie did not make it to the Oscars on many levels.