This post may contain spoilers and large images that may compromise slower internet connections. Read at your own discretion.
As someone greatly affected by the book, I had all of 2012 to back out of the decision to catch Ang Lee‘s interpretation of my favourite novel. But, before I knew it, I found myself at the cinemas on premiere night, standing in front of the theatre with a ticket to the 3D version in one hand, yummy acquisitions from the concession stand in the other, and the resolve to never miss a single moment that could be undone by answering the call of nature. So, I consumed my snacks and prepared myself appropriately before the doors opened. It probably wasn’t the smartest decision to make, had I been sharing a lifeboat with a giant feline — or not — but, it proved to be an imperative survival skill for a 127-minute visual feast.
Long dismissed as a book so loaded, and therefore too ‘unfilmable’, Yann Martel‘s best work has been passed from director to director — including M. Night Shyamalan and Alfonso Cuarón — before settling on the hands of the Taiwanese-born Lee. The initial attraction to the project can be credited to the fact that the main character comes from Pondicherry, India. With that in mind, Lee would ensure that Life of Pi would be adapted and respected with an entirely borderless approach.
After a vibrant opening credits sequence, the film opens in the home of the adult Piscine “Pi” Molitor Patel (played by Irrfan Khan). There is a guest sitting in his kitchen, a writer (played by the very handsome Rafe Spall), who remains nameless throughout the film. Pi calmly fixes a refreshment, and listens to his visitor tentatively explain the failure of his first novel, his chance encounter with Mamaji, a old family friend and honourary uncle, that led him to sit at the Patel nook. Pi hands him the drink, convinced of the nobility of his intentions, and proceeds to tell The Story that would make him “believe in God”.
The Story begins in Pondicherry. Piscine describes the place as “the Paris of India”, due to the French influence in the city’s architecture and urban planning. His parents, Gita (played by Tabu) and Santosh Patel (played by Adil Hussain), own Pondicherry Zoo, and much of the their day-to-day is in co-existence with the animals. A nostalgic reminiscing of Mamaji’s impact on the family reveals the given name of the young Piscine Molitor (played by Gautam Belur) owes its genesis from a French swimming pool of the same name. It is no coincidence that he even learns to swim through Mamaji’s counsel. But, even with an imported name, its nebulous pronunciation makes him subject to ridicule, and he unwillingly carries the nickname “Pissing Patel”.
After years of taunting, Piscine (now played by Ayush Tandon) reaches the tipping point, just before the start of a new school year. He re-constructs his schoolyard image by shortening his name to “Pi”. His method of associating himself with the sixteenth letter of the Greek alphabet and mathematical constant, though mildly unorthodox for an environment of structure, is seen as effective. As a result, his teachers and fellow students begin to address him differently. In fact, his new-found fame causes a commotion in one of his classes. An enthusiastic Pi, having occupied several boards with chalk, writes out the numerical equivalent of his new name. He adds one digit after another on the blackboard, with students and bewildered teachers absorbing the effect.
Being called “Pi” does not stop his older brother, Ravi (played by Mohamed Abbas Khaleeli), from re-hashing “Pissing”, however, and as they become older, he would find comedy in Pi’s fascination for religion and God. Having been raised in a household with relatively progressive thinking for its time, Pi is able to explore his spirituality without the fear of backlash from his parents. But it does not mean that it is not met without question. Neither the gentle but firm Gita nor the rationalist Santosh can fully comprehend Pi’s interests, as he slowly begins practising Islam and Catholicism, in addition to their Hindu social reality and upbringing.
As Pi’s curious exploration intensifies, an investigation on the existence of souls in animals leads Pi to a close shave with the zoo’s Bengal tiger. His parents, understandably worried, impart a gruesome lesson to he and Ravi, and the children never explore the unauthorised grounds of the premise again. Nevertheless, Gita and Santosh continue to let their son indulge. (As an adult, Pi becomes a student of Judaism, and later, a lecturer on Kabbalah at a university.)
Sixteen-year-old Pi (now played by the pleasant-looking Suraj Sharma) remains ever so determined in his pursuit for God, and he experiences the first beckons of love. During a music lesson, he meets a dancer named Anandi (played by Shravanthi Sainath), and after a bumbling start, the two pursue a platonic romance. As the two settle into their relationship, Pi’s parents announce that the city council have stopped supporting Pondicherry Zoo. The family would leave India for Canada. The animals are crated and transported aboard the TsimTsum, a Japanese freighter, and the Patels slowly bid goodbye to the only life they’ve ever known.
The journey across the ocean proves to be tedious for the family. Ocean sickness becomes a regular contender of peace, alongside the choppy waves, and their regular vegetarian diet is grossly disrespected by the ship’s cook (played by Gérard Depardieu). A concerned sailor (played by the sweet-faced Po-Chieh Wang) overhears the vocal interlude, and offers to share his curry. Things seem to quiet down, but after a fuel stop, one particularly stormy night would literally turn everything around, and only one would ever make it to Canada.
Lee’s adaptation is lauded as a visual masterpiece by many who have experienced it. The two-hour run of almost fantastic beauty is achieved by the combined efforts of visual effects company Rhythm & Hues Studios and Chilean cinematographer Claudio Miranda. After tinges of yellow are given for daytime scenes and blue for the night, the colour settings of virtually every frame appears to be deliberately dialled up a notch, pairing the beauty of the writing with the fact that it is, too, beautiful.
That is one handsome cat.
Due to the allegorical nature of The Story, many of the novel’s events would prove tricky — and some infeasible — to bring to life. Lee had to resort to deciding which parts of the book be interpreted through his eyes, and which parts would remain unseen. Those flocking to the film with the novel imprinted in their minds would likely nitpick at the nuances, but to be completely fair, many of them are forgivable.
The slightly difficult characteristic of Martel’s work would also mean having to maneuver the camera angles in ways that would properly portray the dichotomies scattered throughout the novel. Frequent shots are made of reflections that look so seamless that one can no longer make the delineation between the sky and sea, or the state of life and death, or Pi and Richard Parker. The many aerial views featured give the viewer a feel of the magnitude of The Story. It provides a perspective of the elements, mostly in relation to the title character.
Lee exhibits his cleverness as well, and throws in a nice easter egg to viewers who have enjoyed the novel: a cinematic re-construction of Andy Bridge’s art work, Life of Pi‘s original book cover.
(I have a hunch there is another reference to the story design, but my memory is currently failing me. To any of those who have watched the film and read the book, and can identify the moment in question, kindly leave a comment below.)
The Better Story
As a whole, “Life of Pi” is a veritable cinematic package. Being marketed by various media outlets ‘better than “Avatar”‘ and ‘fun for the whole family’ does not begin to do justice to the beauty of its presentation. The international crop of actors involved also gives the film an accessible image, giving viewers a fresh look at The Story, without the distractions of recognition. Not bad, for a job deemed impossible. However, the challenges of creating an ‘unfilmable’ piece of work does not stop at the willingness to accept the project.
Books and films have always been inherently different, but adaptations tend to broach the issue of loyalty — in particular, loyalty towards the original medium. Those who have read the novel prior to the film would notice the artistic license exercised by Lee and Magee. The adaptation of Life of Pi is crafted to appeal to a wide audience, so while a lot of them are understood, certain discrepancies niggled.
Outside from acting as a last-ditch attachment to Pi’s past (of which he later lets go), and Hollywood’s insatiable need to have a romantic arc somewhere, anywhere, in a film, I didn’t see the need for the Anandi’s appearance at all. Secondly, I am incredibly saddened that the humourous showdown between the pandit, imam, and priest at the seaside esplanade does not appear. Featuring the scene may cause controversy within the more conservative communities, granted, but having three religious figures converging at a single given space is a pivotal part of The Story, and solidifies Pi’s take on the notion of belief as more than “dabbling”.
One of the difficulties in bringing a plot-heavy story to the silver screen is depicting dualities visually. The thematic details of The Story would not have been realised, had Lee not laid it out through the dialogue between the writer and the adult Pi. This means removing some of the magic, including laying bare the allegory that Martel would probably prefer for the viewer to discover independently.
Last night, in my enthusiasm to clean my WordPress dashboard of spam, I accidentally deleted all the comments that came with the posts on “Fine Art of Blogging”, and the Absolut Elyx fashion show. I sincerely apologise for the inconvenience caused, particularly to all those who were directly affected by my having digital butterfingers. It will not happen again, and I will exercise more vigilance with my mouse.
Hope everyone enjoyed a refreshing Christmas break, and a pleasant start to 2013.
(All images are credited to their respective owners. Click on any image to go to its source.)