I have not read Life of Pi. When a book comes recommended as ‘life-changing’ and ‘will make you believe in God’, I run from it like I would from a Tusshar Kapoor-starrer. No disrespect but spiritual, self-help books with dollops of magic realism are just not for me. Reading Paulo Coelho made me realise this. It also taught me that when the world knows you do not like something, it conspires to make you read it.
When I heard that Ang Lee was making Life of Pi into a film, I was conflicted. On one hand, it’s Ang Lee. On the other, it is the same book I had deliberately avoided reading many years ago. So I decided to do some research. Most of the reviews I read, the ones that praised the film, all seemed to harp on either the sea-adventure aspect of it or the emotional resonance of its ringing endorsement of faith.
This did nothing to allay my misgivings. But ultimately, and it feels strange to say this, when you are an Indian in a foreign land, it becomes your patriotic duty to go to the theatre and see a “foreign” movie that has Indian characters in it, almost as if Irrfan Khan and Tabu had come to town and it was my social obligation to go and say “Hi”.
And so I went.
From the first frame itself, Life of Pi establishes itself as a visual spectacle. Here is 3D the way it is supposed to be done. But then that’s expected. It is, after all, an Ang Lee film.
There are some bad Indian Apu accents. But then that too is expected. It is, after all, Hollywood. At least no one jumped out of human excreta, Slumdog Millionaire-style. Which is a relief. A shipwreck that does not happen when Kate Winslet is being painted nude. Original.
Then a long voyage through the ocean, while arty and ponderous, has none of the tension of Open Water. It’s not supposed to be, I tell myself. This is not a horror thriller. I do feel it is dragging in parts, specially as Pi keeps jousting with the tiger — a fact brought home to me by the person on my right who has fallen asleep.
Then comes the denouement, the final twist in the tale. It’s then that I sit up. Actually sit up. Because what the movie has built up to is not, as I had been led to believe, an unequivocal endorsement of faith and rejection of rational causality. What I see now is far more subtle. The world is terrible, like the island — all beauty in the light and sharp, carnivorous teeth at night. One thus has two choices — either accept the truth in its terrifying purity or construct a comforting cocoon around it.
Since the consequences are the same regardless of the choice taken, it is perhaps more natural to consider as ‘truth’ that which gives hope and succour. There are traces of that great master of horror Lovecraft’s world view here, namely that the reality of the universe is too horrible to behold, and that those who gaze upon it unprotected, in the search of knowledge, go insane. Which is why the thin covering that holds the madness ‘in’, which in the Life of Pi is faith, must not be ruptured.
No. This is not the bumper-sticker triteness that I had gone in expecting. This is quite, quite different. Whether the depth now revealed was always there in the source material or whether it is a testament to Ang Lee’s craft, I know not. What I do know is Life of Pi is the type of cinema that keeps the conversation going, long after the end credits have rolled. And in an era of “See it once and wipe clean from mind” entertainment, how rare is that?
(Arnab Ray is the author of The Mine and May I Hebb Your Attention Pliss)