When for the first time Richard Parker, the magnificent Bengal tiger, jumps at you from under the tarpaulin of the lifeboat in Life of Pi, you jump out of your seat. It doesn’t matter if you are seven or 17 or 70. Just like the audiences running for cover when the Lumiere brothers had the train hurtling towards them on the big screen back in 1897.
We are almost through with 2012 and with the help of advanced technologies like 3D and CGI, master director Ang Lee creates the same kind of simple magic on celluloid that warmed mankind to cinema in the first place. Both Yann Martel’s Booker Prize-winning novel and its adaptation by screenwriter David Magee celebrate “a story which can make you believe in God” but Lee’s Life of Pi makes you believe in cinema. All over again.
Cinema has its limitations. It can show things, play sounds, have people act out scenes but to have a boy and a tiger stuck in a boat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean for a couple of hours is quite unfilmable. But if Tom Tykwer could translate smelling on screen (Perfume: The Story of a Murderer), Ang Lee can get a tiger to crouch and a dragon to hide.
What Lee does brilliantly and in film after film, regardless of the changing genre, is know what he is making. Brokeback Mountain was not about homosexuality but love, Lust, Caution was not about sex but psychology, and Life of Pi is not about survival but about spirituality. And in that way it moves away from a Cast Away or a 127 Hours because Lee treats the film like a dialogue between Pi and God. In the first act, before the shipwreck, he deeply invests in Pi’s faith in God — “a house with many rooms”. This faith would be tested to the full when Pi would have to spend many a tumultuous day and many a torrid night in that lifeboat, waging war with nature and the not-so-friendly Mr Parker.
To call the film a visual treat would be like calling Sehwag a brisk rungetter. It will take a couple of editions of t2 to describe the wonderland that is Life of Pi. From glowing whales to flying fish, swimming zebras to marching meerkats, it’s a fantastic world out there. While much of it is done inside the studio, the sea and the sky look real — and surreally stunning — most of the time. And if it does rarely seem like the fake horizon from The Truman Show, that’s because there is a common thread somewhere — the truth of your life is the one you wish to live.
Delhi boy Suraj Sharma as Pi looks the part and has eyes to root for but strangely you never quite get used to his dialogue delivery and that last monologue on the hospital bed is quite a downer. As the older Pi and the storyteller of the piece, Irrfan Khan, who’s starting to look like a young Samuel L. Jackson, is effortlessly charming. And his emotional speech at the end is the one that actually ties the movie together. There are also lovely cameos by Tabu, Adil Hussain and the inimitable Gerard Depardieu.
But Life of Pi belongs to one man and one man only. Richard Parker. Played by four different tigers with more than a little help from gifted CGI artists, the big cat makes the movie a full-bodied experience. It’s when you look deep into his eyes as he stands tall in Pi’s arc, you see your emotions reflected back at you. And you know what is out there and what is in you.