(Published in The Sunday Guardian, on 25 November, 2012, retrieved from http://www.sunday-guardian.com/masala-art/lee-outdoes-martel)
Cast: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Tabu, Adil Hussain, Rafe Spall
Director: Ang Lee
Rating: 4.5 stars
When a film based on a Booker Prize-winning novel makes you wonder whether the book was as exquisite as the movie makes it out to be, it’s hit the mark. When I read Yann Martel’s Life of Pi ten years ago, I found it borderline New Age, and dismissed its literary value in the confidence of my all-knowing teens. My opinion of the book may not be vastly different if I were to read it again, but Ang Lee’s interpretation swept me into the story in a way the book didn’t.
Lee works a new character into the script – the writer who interviews Pi decades after the adventure, whose response to Pi’s narration is more believable than that of the insurance officials who play listeners in the book. The film pares the novel of its self-involved philosophical musings, and puts the remaining in the mouths of two incredibly talented actors – Irrfan Khan and Suraj Sharma.
The eagerness of the director to tell a story, and not simply relay it, is evident in the time he spends on setting the scene. The first half of the film wafts through Pi’s early years, each allusion to daily routine in Pondicherry a masterstroke in creating a vivid portrait of 1970s India. A Murphy Radio relays Emergency-related announcements, the cut of a blouse conveys the era. The crew must have had excellent researchers, because, try as I might, the only aspect of the film I found amiss – aside from the value of pi – was Tabu’s incomprehensible Tamil. The country is saved from Hollywoodsy exotification, thanks to the ironic narrative voice both Khan and Sharma adopt.
The use of 3D in Life of Pi outdoes Hugo, and made me forget Avatar ever happened. The cinematography luxuriates in this completeness, allowing us to delight in the stillness of water, the break of dawn, ripples from a flung can, luminescent plankton in the night sea, the morphing of a picture-story into reality. We’re drawn into the film, witnessing the loneliness of a boy, party to his dilemmas, and sinking into his mind as it progressively tilts toward derangement.
The screenplay is exquisite, staying with Pi as he loses strength and gains fortitude, as wisdom eats away at hope, as the fight to survive overcomes sentimentality. We relate to his “Excuse me” as he wades through clans of meerkats, his anthropomorphic betrayal when a four-legged companion plunges into the jungle without turning back. This isn’t a story about seafaring, exotic zoos and carnivorous islands. It’s a story about life, beautiful, misleading, dangerous, and kind.
The Verdict: Undoubtedly Ang Lee’s best film, Life of Pi is a lesson in cinematic excellence.