The word irrational, stripped of context, brings to mind different things to different people. To some, it could refer to the mathematical expression Pi; to others, the concept of a beneficent creator. But who, or what, is that anyway? Popular notions include a deity whose omnipotent palms must be greased by petitions and obscure oblations, a deaf and blind phantom, and still yet, a work of collective imagination.
But what does all this babbling about the divine have to do with a tale of survival of a scrawny boy and a ferocious tiger on a boat in the middle of the sea? A lot, though you might miss it.
The hero of the film, as you would have guessed, is named Pi. Born in French Pondicherry, Piscine ‘Pi’ Patel (Khan) narrates the story of a boyhood adventure on the Pacific Ocean to a writer in search of inspiration (Spall). His name has a more amusing origin than any association with the famous constant though he can note it down almost to the last decimal place. He is also a walking encyclopaedia on comparative religion, though his zookeeper father takes an unkind view to his spiritual obsessions.
Not to spoil anything for those who have not read the book by Yann Martel, we see our hero wrested away from his family by the elements en route to Canada and tossed about on the Pacific with a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan and a Royal Bengal tiger called Richard Parker, for company.
Life of Pi, Lee’s first film to be shot in 3D, can boast of tremendous visual beauty, but as its protagonist makes his way from familiar light-hearted coming-of-age territory to starker and more fantastic places, one comes to admire Lee’s sense of restraint.
The portion set in Pondicherry is a feast for the senses with the expected cultural vibrancy played up. But curiosity is whetted with the viewer bearing in mind Pi’s saying that by the time the tale was told, the writer would not only have a story, but also proof of God’s existence.
The tall claim kept this reviewer braced for an equally tall tale. Things get relatively subtler with explorations of human nature and the age-old problem of evil (if God who exists is good, why is there evil in the world?) being the ultimate themes for the viewer to take home.
The seemingly boundless sea is the undeniable centrepiece of the film. A shimmering mirror to the azure expanse of sky, in calmer moments, it is as sedate as Pi’s beloved diety Vishnu’s reposing place. When violent, the thrashing waters make things beyond bearable for Pi, as if the unrelentingly vicious wild cat on board wasn’t bad enough.
Playing the not-so-ancient mariner trapped between a CGI tiger and the deep blue sea isn’t the easiest role to make your debut with, but Sharma does a stupendous job. Tabu, playing his mother who radiates emotional intelligence and sagacity, gives one of the film’s best performances, saying so much with so few words.
In a world where religion is viewed as an anthropological tailbone and a stumbling block in the way to a better tomorrow, Life of Pi is a well-told parable which offers scoffers a non-intelligence-insulting perspective. A visually captivating but subtlely written film with great performances, Life of Pi makes for interesting viewing.