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Rarely has a film looked and sounded as beautiful as Ang Lee’s Life of Pi. The Taiwanese master’s latest film is an enthralling theatrical experience, but could be a tad disappointing for those expecting it to be as philosophically deep as the book it is based on. Nevertheless, Life of Pi is something that you should experience on the big screen.
With an enviable filmography that underlines his terrific versatility, Ang Lee's cinematic adaptation of Yann Martel's Man Booker-winning novel Life of Pi, was easily one of the marquee films of the year, especially once the trailers of the film were unveiled. A gorgeous, visually stunning film that tries hard to retain the essence of Martel's novel, the film does succeed on that count, but only in some measure.
Pi Patel, who seems to have an enchanting story behind every facet of his life, starting with the one behind his name, spends the formative years of his life growing up in idyllic Pondicherry. A fascinating boyhood, that includes devouring the works of Camus & Dostoyevsky and a unique tryst with religion amongst other things, is uprooted when his family decides to set sail for Canada, for good. Disaster strikes on their voyage, however, and Pi is stranded on a lifeboat, mid-ocean, with just a rather large, carnivorous feline and his spirituality for company.
Make no mistake - with the best use of 3D since Hugo and with some truly exceptional CGI, Life of Pi is a sumptuous visual treat. Jaw-droppingly beautiful frames abound in the film, enhanced with a subtle, melodious and haunting background score. Life of Pi is a complete victory for both vision as well as execution, as far as recreating the world from Martel's book is concerned. The alternating rage and calm of the sapphire-blue ocean, the hypnotic sunsets, the nocturnal marine bioluminescence, everything visual in the film is a work of art.
The peak of this is the tiger, which takes CG in cinema to an astonishing new level. Fur has historically been the toughest detail for animators to crack. Here, the fur that embellishes those beautiful, strong sinews is perfect. So realistic is the tiger in this film that, apart from a few chinks vis-à-vis scale and perspective, it is nearly impossible to tell that it isn't real.
That said, Life of Pi is by no means a perfect film. It takes a while to get used to Irrfan (adult Pi) and Adil Hussain's (young Pi's father) horrendously awkward, fake Indian accents. It dampens the otherwise excellent performances from the two. Also, Ang Lee seems to have pushed himself in a corner attempting to direct so many actors from such varied nationalities in the same film - some of the side characters, in particular, are extremely wooden and unconvincing. Tabu, in a brief role as young Pi's mother, has a calming presence. Suraj Sharma plays the shipwrecked Pi, and he does a good job of it. But the non-CG cast doesn't hold a candle to the tiger with the charming human name - discover it for yourself if you haven't read the book - who steals the show.
But really, the reasons why the film didn't meet my expectations were on a different plane altogether. Apart from all the hype this film has generated the world over, one of the reasons why I was really looking forward to this film was just how topical and relevant it is right now, particularly for us Indians. With two high profile deaths in the recent past, those with opinions and a medium to voice it spoke out loud, invariably with extreme views on each, particularly with respect to religion. But the opinions that were heard were, at the end of the day, minority opinions. The truth is that a majority of us are still grappling with what to make of God and religion.
Life of Pi, the book, has the power to at least give our own views on religion some food for thought, to set the ball rolling so that we at least consider discovering for ourselves just why this essentially human construct has the power to sway minds the way it does. I went in expecting Ang Lee to achieve that same effect via cinema, and I walked away a tad disappointed. The task was daunting, no doubt, but it seems like Lee and screenwriter David Magee played it too safe with the issues they chose to concentrate on and the ones they chose to skirt.
There is so much to like about Life of Pi, the film, that I would recommend it to anyone who loves cinema. But if the film manages to evoke some curiosity about the book and inspires at least a handful of people to actually read the book, delve deeper into the philosophy behind it and then question what they really know and feel about God and religion, that would be the real victory that Ang Lee would have achieved with what could have been his magnum opus.
This review is by guest reviewer Pradeep Menon. Pradeep is a filmmaker and a dreamer. He loves books, rain, winters, tea and his parents. Cinema, however, is the only truth he believes in. He breathes and bleeds film, mostly in hues of saffron, white, green and blue. You can watch his short films at www.youtube.com/cyberpradeep.
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