American audiences who go to the movies to see Hollywood celebrity actors might assume they wouldn’t be interested in a film starring Irrfan Khan and Suraj Sharma. But they would be missing out on a unique cinematic experience.
They said it couldn’t be done – making this particular book into a movie – but Taiwanese/American Director Ang Lee fearlessly combines CGI technology with a charming little tale set in French India, based on the best-selling book by the Spanish-born writer Yann Martel.
Pi Patel (Sharma, though at younger ages played by child actors) is a teenager whose family owned a small zoo in the French section of India. He took his nickname because his full French name sounded too much like an English slang word, and the abbreviation reminds people of the Greek mathematical insignia instead. He likes math, anyway, and does well at school generally. He remembers being reprimanded by his father for getting too friendly with the tiger. His father says the tiger is not your friend; he acts on his instincts, and he might be trained, but never tamed. His father insisted that young Pi witness the tiger attacking and eating a tethered goat, just to demonstrate his true nature. It was a lesson Pi would not forget, and would actually serve him well later.
Pi is devastated when his father announces at the dinner table one evening that because of the political and economic situation in their own country, the family is going to move to Canada. And they are going to move the zoo animals on the boat to Winnipeg with them. It was a Japanese vessel, leaving from the Philippines. A couple of days out to sea, there is a terrific storm. Pi, awakened by the sudden clamor, runs up on the heaving deck, having fun just slipping and sliding around and being buffeted by the strong winds, unaware that there is truly grave danger here. A series of random happenstances leaves him stranded in a lifeboat as the only human survivor.
Pi’s only company is of the four-footed variety. There’s a zebra with a broken leg. There’s an orangutan that doesn’t like the hyena, and there’s a stowaway rat, as well, and then there’s … the full-grown Bengal tiger.
Now we suddenly convert from a whimsical little coming-of-age story to an exotic, unlikely survivor epic that may or not be fanciful, and may or may not be metaphoric, and may or may not be enhanced by artistic license. This is part of what the viewer has to decide. Pi and the tiger also have an adventure together on a remote Pacific island, populated entirely by … meerkats?
Yes, there is much beautiful photography of luminescent seascape, including underwater “glow-fish,” and the giant moon reflecting on the gentle waves. We even have some sort of enormous Leviathan (Psalm 104:26), suddenly emerging out of the sea, and just as mysteriously disappearing. Meanwhile, Pi strains to find food (he’d previously been a vegetarian), and catch the fresh water when it rains, and somehow keep himself sane by talking to the animals.
How unlikely is it that he would eventually drift onto the beach in Mexico?
Well, about as likely as developing a codependent relationship with a wild tiger. But “Life of Pi” is not really about the rationality or believability, anyway; it’s more about the epic voyage of self-discovery that requires some version of bending memory on everyone’s part. Even retelling the story, much later, to a writer, and telling him that he could do with it whatever he wishes, including an alternate version especially constructed for the official delegates of the Japanese shipping company … well, it’s the kind of interactive experience where the viewer still has to decide what to appropriate. In the case of “Life of Pi,” though the pacing is exquisitely deliberate, as with any artistic rendering, the perception and appreciation are all in the spirit of the beholder.
Ronald P. Salfen is minister of St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.