Boating with a Bengal Tiger

Directed by Ang Lee

Acclaimed director Ang Lee picked well with his latest venture of adapting Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, depicting cinematic deliciousness with beautiful landscapes, lively animal scenes and a central character who manages to bring a sea-faring adventure to life. Following the unnamed writer who meets a remarkable Indian man to hear about his life story, we meet ‘Pi’, full name Piscine Molitor Patel, named after a French swimming pool, brought up in the French-Indian colony of Pondicherry, who lives in a zoo. And it’s not long before he is sailing on a Japanese ship which is bound for Canada, to begin a new life with his parents and his brother Ravi. And thus begins what seems to be a richly-coloured tale, although it doesn’t just begin there. Painting a portrait of zoo life and schoolboy childhood in India, Pi (and the narrator) creating an engaging voice, pulling us along in his memories of being teased at school, living with zoo animals, and even meeting girls, giving an almost ‘boy’s own’ adventure tone which we can easily fall into.


And this is, after all, a tale to “make you believe in God”, so it’s fitting that we also learn about Pi’s religious beliefs, and how he is brought up as a Hindu but stumbles upon Christianity and it’s “mind-boggling” concepts of love and sacrifice. Soon, “Islam followed right behind”, with Pi embracing all three religions and accepting their philosophies equally. It is here we see a compassionate young boy, looking to understand the idea of love and God, and the overlying message that all are equal. (Not that it stops his brother teasing him by asking whether “Swami Jesus will be visiting Mecca this year”, or whether “will it be to Rome for your coronation as the next Pope Pi-us?”).

And there are the animals themselves, twittering, growling, moo-ing and neighing in and out of the film, as the director amalgamates Pi’s childhood in the zoo with his journey on the Pacific Ocean. From the very beginning of the film we are asked: “Do animals have a soul?”. Pi’s father insists that it is our own emotions and perceptions which are reflected back at us when looking into their eyes, but Pi’s spiritual nature is reluctant to accept this view. At the peak of the film, events takes a tragic turn when the ship begins to sink, and in true epic style, Pi is left along with some zoo animals, his own knowledge and a whole lot of water. Thus, the story of the survival of a young boy becomes more than just about getting his meal and being rescued; he has to contend with sharing a life-boat with a deadly tiger, keep his sanity, and learn about his place in the world and how far he will go to survive.


Most striking of all about this film is the aesthetic experience; Lee transports us to an oceanic world which is much more beautiful than your average travel brochure, luring us with beautiful scenes to share this adventure with Pi. With exquisite detail in the landscape, animals and beautiful scenery, this is a movie which appreciates natural beauty as an art, transporting viewers into a simpler world of enhanced beauty, the idea of the spiritual and being human. Blending special effects so that they merge with the spectacular scenes (the night scene with glowing pools of water and fish is one of my favourite scenes, left) it’s easy to leave us breathless, mixing the almost unreal and unbelievable to make the beautifully depicted animals and epic scenes feel just a touch away.


All in all, this is a wonderful story, Yann Martel’s novel quietly questions the idea of home, and what makes us human, and Ang Lee interprets this on the screen just as well. While the novel is more successful at portraying the angst of religious conflicts and “being all religions is the same as being none at all”, as well as the concept of animals being compared to humans, the film chooses to do this in imagery. We are shown the beauty of nature in all its calm and cruelty, its mastery of mankind as well as the taming of it. Metaphors, too, come in several forms in this film, we see how ‘Richard Parker’ (the tiger) represents not only Nature, but also reflects back Pi’s wild side, just as the sea, the ship, the life-boat and the various encounters the protagonist has represents not only the circle that is Life, but also the idea of a ‘spiritual’ coming of age. Newbie Suraj Sharma plays his role amazingly, and doesn’t overact or under-emote, and his ability to express emotions realistically only adds to the calibre of the film.

I loved the book because of its haunting and quiet descriptions of a lone soul struggling to survive in an extreme situation, and just as it quietly comes to an astonishing end, this film also ties the threads to come together in a startling, yet quiet conclusion in this masterpiece. I will admit that the novel felt more articulate and the ending felt more coherent to me than the film, yet the actual cinematic experience of this film is beautiful and cannot be beaten, it is a journey which I ‘d recommend to all.

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