Life of Pi: Questions of faith and religion in fantastical 3D

Life of Pi draws its viewers in with its sprawling simplicity and fable-like storytelling, and digs into their minds to keep them thinking long after they have left the halls.

I have never before seen a film exploit 3-D viewing as beautifully as this; I felt I could reach out and touch the philosophy.

Life of Pi is the film based on Yann Martel’s Man Booker Prize winning novel of the same name. It is the story of a young man lost at sea with a tiger called Richard Parker. Being that, it is so much, and much more, dealing with Man’s relationship with God, and the nature of faith and faiths.

Life of Pi is directed by Ang Lee (of Brokeback fame and Hulk notoriety) who once again takes on something so detached from his person to tell this story – a story that is fantastical enough for the viewer to distance from the surface of it and see the depths beneath it, to reach the common humanity in all of us. Being as much a tale of faith as it is of doubt, it is subtle in its underlying philosophies, and overt in its scale.

The overarching story is of an older Pi narrating his story to an unnamed novelist – of him surviving the better part of a year on a life raft with a tiger, and finding the meaning of god through that – to the unnamed earpiece novelist. Pi’s family is lost in a storm as their ship goes under while crossing the pacific. Pi’s story goes on to him trying to survive, alone, with his tiger (with an interesting story behind his name as well. Edgar Allan Poe fans might recognize the slight reference).

The film is the story about stories. The story of ‘Pi’s name, his experiments with religion (Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam, in that order) while growing up in Pondicherry in the 1980s, his relationships with his family and the other animals of the zoo his father owned. The story of a life uprooted and shaken in the most terrible way, and the story of surviving it. The story of being lost at sea, and perhaps finding oneself as one survives that ordeal. The story of practicality and belief in higher ideals and… let’s call it the biggest story of all.

Without resorting to gimmicky shoshabaazi, Life of Pi uses 3-D with a held hand to paint each frame and pace the film to make it the awesome fable it is. From vivid visuals of Pi’s underwater fever dreams to whales breaching luminescent jellyfish lit ocean surfaces on moonless nights. Cryptic dreamscape-like sequences are knit with harsh, hard-hitting scenes were mute, unfeeling nature hits this man with all he can take, and then some.

Keeping to his original story, Pi speaks about how his experiences shaped his thinking and understanding of God. His ups-and-downs on the rocking waves of the ocean can be seen as an allegory for man’s faith being tested to the extremes of human experience – does Pi keep his faith, or by seeing the cold side of nature does he become more practical?

Pi can be seen to experience the simplistic primary signifiers of Hinduism, Islam and Catholic Christianity – namely, the acceptance of one’s dharma, surrender to a higher power and, as said so by the protagonist in one scene, the innocent dying for the sins of the guilty.

It also raises deep philosophical questions in approachable terms – like if an experience cannot affect us any more, or be verified in anyway, would the ‘real answer’ matter – say you have a box that only you can look into. Would you rather have it be full of nothing, empty and meaningless, or would you rather describe something fantastical, limited only by your imagination, that inspires and enlightens? If no one else can look in, would it matter which is true? What would ‘true’ mean in a scenario like this anyway?

My favourite aspect of the film has to be the denouement, that manages to satisfy both believers and doubters of God, somehow reaffirming their beliefs, and forcing agnostics to get down to serious thinking. Life of Pi draws its viewers in with its sprawling simplicity and fable-like storytelling, and digs into their minds to keep them thinking long after they have left the halls. Ang Lee’s vision carries this film forward, and the actors carry it on sure, firm shoulders. Adil Hussain, here playing Pi’s father, is fast-becoming what Kay Kay Menon was trying to be. Irrfan Khan and Tabu (playing mother and son after husband and wife in The Namesake) nail their performances.

The only flaw one might find (because that is what people do when something seems so seamless) is perhaps that there was too much talking. A sign of better cinema, that both audio and visual mediums were used equally to tell a story, and the limits of technology were used to make this a true modern fairy-tale, no matter which version you want to believe.

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