Pi perspective

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The making of Life of Pi and Suraj Sharma, by ANTOINETTE MULLINS









Based on the book by Yann Martel, the recently released movie Life of Pi is an unforgettable story about courage, perseverance, inspiration and hope.  The book itself won the prestigious Booker Prize and sold seven million copies worldwide, spending years on bestseller lists. And now the movie – which unfolds over three continents, two oceans, many years and a wide universe of imagination – is already being internationally acclaimed for its distinctive charm, excellent imagery and as a truly believable adaptation of the book.

Life of Pi has already won awards from other film critic groups including six awards by the Las Vegas Film Critics Society and nine nods for the 18th Critics’ Choice Movie Awards. It has also been nominated for three Golden Globe awards, for best motion picture (drama), best director and best score.


Inspiring tale

Not giving anything away, the story starts with the adult Pi Patel – played perfectly by Irrfan Khan – telling his story to an author – this is a story that “will make you believe in God”, Pi tells him.  It’s the story of his life – a young boy from Pondicherry in French India, whose family owns a zoo.  As he grows up and endeavours to find his place in the world, we meet many people who influence his young life and shape him into the little human he’s becoming.  In the film, 17 year old Pi, played by Suraj Sharma, is told that the family is leaving India in search of a better life. This means moving as a family to Canada and leaving behind everything that Pi knows, including his first love.  His mother, played by veteran actress Tabu, is a grounding force in his life and tries to shelter him from the harshness of this world.  By contrast, his father takes on a more practical view, teaching him that although the world is beautiful, it can also be very dangerous – a lesson stamped into Pi through a very close encounter with a Bengal tiger called Richard Parker.

The family boards a Japanese cargo ship and meets a sadistic chef, played by Gérard Depardieu.  Pi’s world is shattered when the ship sinks and he is cast adrift on a lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with some very interesting (and dangerous) characters.  The journey of self-discovery, courage and perseverance that follows encourages us all to hang in there, to believe in ourselves and to find joy in even the smallest of victories.

Although the story has many religious elements, it is not focused on just one.  It teaches religious tolerance – something we can all learn!  The young Pi is exposed to many facets of religious teachings, including Hinduism, Judaism, Islam and Catholicism.  This makes for some interesting moments in the film, as he prays a lot and in many different ways.  As his father says, “At the rate you’re going, if you go to temple on Thursday, mosque on Friday, synagogue on Saturday and church on Sunday, you only need to convert to three more religions to be on holiday for the rest of your life.”



A directorial challenge

Director Ang Lee (of Brokeback Mountain and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon fame) develops the story using his kaleidoscopic imagination and visionary genius.  Creating a visual marvel where the cinematography takes on a life of its own – even the great wide ocean where our hero finds himself adrift, acts like a character in the story: both villain and reluctant hero, helping Pi along his voyage of self discovery.

When I heard Ang Lee was making a movie from the book, I was very excited but also anxious, as I loved the charming picture of India that Yann Martel had painted.  This is in contrast with many Hollywood movies showing the gritty side of India – such as in Slumdog Millionaire.  However, I was relieved after seeing Life of Pi, which paints a serene, picturesque and often idyllic French India. Ang Lee never considered shooting the first act of the movie anywhere else, as he explained: “While we were working on the script I scouted around, and there is really nothing else that compares to French India.  It’s unique and somewhat unfamiliar to the rest of the world.  It’s like you can just drop a camera anywhere in there, turn it on, and the picture will be beautiful.”


In telling Pi’s story, Mr Lee pushes the boundaries of cutting-edge motion picture technologies, which films such as Avatar and Titanic 3D have done.  The character of Richard Parker has been expertly brought to life through the magic of CGI – a fact for which Suraj is very grateful as he did not relish acting with a live tiger on a small lifeboat!

I was an avid fan of the book – after reading it I tried to take on Pi’s way of seeing the beauty in every situation and making the most of it.  Not always an easy task, but I found that when you tackle everyday frustrations with a bit of humour, you can overcome anything.

And now, I love the movie even more. Because Life of Pi is a heart-warming story, one of beauty and warmth that tugs at your heartstrings and makes you laugh, all at the same time.  If you have time, read the book first.  But watch the film anyway – with the animal scenes and stunning visions of India in 3D, it’s a delight for the entire family. The film is rated PG, so take the kids and go see it this holiday season, it’s a delight for the whole family!

Pi is a delightful character whose sense of humour and kind heart guides him through life and gives him the courage to face his very difficult journey.  He’s the kind of on-screen character that makes you want to shout out, “C’mon little man, you can do it!”, while fellow movie-goers shout at you to be quiet. After meeting Suraj Sharma, who plays this incredible character with a unique authenticity, that feeling was reinforced several times over.

I cannot imagine anyone playing the character of Pi better than Suraj, who is amazingly, a newcomer to the world of acting.  Anyone who has seen the movie will agree with me that Suraj became the character of Pi wholeheartedly. He completely won over fans of the book, earnest critics, general moviegoes and unsurprisingly, the crew of the movie, with the strength and sensitivity of his performance.


On his recent trip to Sydney to promote the film, I caught up with Suraj to find out about his Pi experience.


On meeting him, Suraj comes across as an uncomplicated yet sensitive person, who practically shines with excitement when talking about his experiences in making Life of Pi, and his excitement is infectious. Its clear to me that he takes joy from simple everyday experiences. I interviewed him at the Intercontinental Hotel in Sydney in a room full of people, two cameras and multiple lights shining down on us, which is certainly not an everyday experience. At least, not for me!  But just as Ang Lee helped Suraj calm down during the making of the movie, Suraj had that effect on me.  I took a deep breath and we got started.

17 year old Suraj was cast as Pi after an extensive search all over India, through an audition process involving 3,000 young men. “I was really nervous, especially during the final audition.  I was actually shaking but Ang calmed me down – he’s got this thing about him that calms people down,” said Suraj, of his first encounter with the renowned veteran director. “Ang is an amazing human being.  Some of the scenes were really intense and you felt yourself crumbling, but he was the glue that kept everyone alive and together – you can’t but help be inspired by him,” added an obviously impressed Suraj.

In what is a charming anecdote, to mark the beginning of her son’s journey into a new world of acting and moviemaking, Suraj’s mother performed a small ceremony, during which she appointed Director Ang Lee as her son’s guru.  Ever humble, Mr Lee’s first thoughts were that he was unworthy of assuming such a formidable responsibility.  But the ceremony, he notes, ‘got to me’, and he agreed to strive to be deserving of the honor.  Suraj stated that the ceremony was to make things ‘official’ and that Ang would have taken him under his wing anyway, because that’s what comes naturally to him. “He is a great teacher,” said Suraj.

But by the end of production, it was Suraj who became the on-set spiritual leader.  Mr Lee marvelled at Suraj’s innocence and efforts, noting, “We are all experienced and perhaps a little jaded.  Suraj reminded us why we want to make movies.  Every day was a miracle.”

So how did he transform into the powerful character that is Pi? “Blocks of Pi’s personality were slowly being put inside of me,” he replied somewhat cryptically. It’s clear that it took an intense amount of studying the character, understanding the various nuances of Pi, and Suraj even read the book three times simply to truly understand the story and portray Pi just as author Yann Martel intended. Suraj really had his work cut out as he even had to do swimming classes for the film, because he didn’t know how to swim. This coupled with meditation, yoga and acting classes kept the young man not just busy, but capable of doing justice to the character he played.

As a young boy, Suraj displayed a strong talent in music and trained in Hindustani vocal and tabla, as well as the keyboard and guitar. But he was no ‘softy’, having also trained in karate and having acquired a Junior Black Belt in the Seido Karate School at 13.  It’s clear that Suraj is an all-rounder, being an avid soccer player and participating in sport all through his school years.

The debut actor who was 17 during much of the production of Life of Pi, actually celebrated his 18th birthday with the film’s crew in the midst of shooting the movie’s lifeboat scenes in the massive outdoor wave tank built in Taiwan for the movie, where most of it is shot.

And yes, ladies!  I did ask him the question you all want to know: he is single, but in my opinion, not for long!  This unassuming 18 year old with a smile that reaches his soft brown eyes, will not be off the market for long!

And what did he think about being in Australia? Suraj said that he loves Sydney but wished he had more time to really explore our beautiful city, an unlikely option considering his hectic schedule. “I love walking and getting to know a city on foot – you really get to see so much more walking around,” he said.  But currently his life is a whirlwind of media interviews, jetsetting around the world to promote the movie – and there’s no doubt that he’s getting quite good at that!  He has already learned to charm the other reporters, who return to the media room with the same opinion as me – “He’s so nice!”

So what’s next for Suraj? Does he intend making acting a career? This young talented actor has other plans. He wants to be behind the camera as he says it’s much harder and more challenging for him.  Suraj has enrolled and is entering his freshman year at Delhi University’s St. Stephen’s College this year. And that’s his immediate plan.

But Suraj Sharma is certainly going places.  Anywhere he wants to go, really!


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