The bid for survival when subject to extreme conditions can often reveal an unexplored facet of us. And the final result could span an entire spectrum – from discomfiting to validating. In normal situations, we can only hope to know ourselves. It is in situations turbulent and perilous that the facade crumbles pretty quickly and makes us meet the stranger inside us. He could be resourceful, compassionate, or a monster difficult to reason with. Thus most relationships (both with ourselves and others) have nothing to do with absolutes, but are a progeny of the circumstances they find themselves in. This could explain one of the reasons why most human beings tend to believe in a higher power, because that at least gives them certain constancy, something they can turn to in moments of despair and happiness with equal poise and belief. Pi believes too. Not in one, but three gods.
He’s born to Indian parents in Pondicherry; his dad is a zoo owner. Pi is quite an unusual adolescent. He finds solace in books of Camus, Dostoevsky, in companies of multiple gods, and displays more than healthy compassion for animals. He soon finds himself on a ship sailing to Canada with his family members and animals from his dad’s zoo. It doesn’t take long for his world to rupture: a tempestuous storm destroys his ship, and he soon finds himself on an estranged boat accompanying four animals: zebra, orangutan, hyena, and a Bengal tiger. Soon, the other animals die, and he’s on the boat in the middle of a sea with that Bengal tiger (mistakenly and endearingly named, Richard Parker).
It’s a premise as unusual as it could be. And if you so insist, you can start disbelieving everything after the ship wreck. Therefore, for a movie like this it needs a skill of totally different kind: dexterous delineation of transition. Almost every movie contains various degrees of transitions; at the beginning of most movies, the central character aspires for something, and in the end he gets it. Or vice versa. Movies or novels would be drab without transitions. And for a movie like Life of Pi, the transition becomes all the more important because it’s such a seismic leap. Also, it’s not only one gigantic transition that Ang Lee gets right, but myriad minute ones: the implicit understanding between the predator and prey that they can co-exist, the resourcefulness required to survive such a drastic situation, the disillusionment, breakdown, and the final epiphany. It’s to Ang Lee’s and Sqyures’s (editor) credit that every frame appears unhurried, every transition not only silken, but also believable. And, not only that, but Lee also manages to soar the tension when he wants to, and ebb it down when the adrenaline has kicked in. Quite similar to the waves Pi encounters in his journey.
It’s when we are ironically ensconced into Pi’s journey that Ang Lee begins pulling out the tropes. In a wonderful little scene from the movie, Pi and Parker are staring into the sea, and they encounter multitude strange, wonderfully lit life-forms. The faces of both Parker and Pi are curiously colored as they are both seeing a form of life they have never seen before. It’s a peek into the unknown — much like the relationship between Parker and Pi. At the beginning, Pi is apprehensive of Parker, and understandably so, but slowly their relationship ventures outside the definitions of a predator-prey relationship. Because both of them are trapped in a vulnerably alien situation and they need each other’s help to stay safe. Thus in that case, the tiger is just not a menacing animal, but becomes a metaphor for the fear of unknown. How many times have we been apprehensive of things, people just because we don’t know them, and hence perceive them in only parochial, constricted hue.
Even if you disagree with the undertones of the movie, it doesn’t become a deterrent to enjoy the movie. Because it is so masterly executed, that it can simply be enjoyed at its face value, and that’s not really a bad thing. More so because, the journey forms such a big part of the movie, and it’s heartening to see that Ang Lee really understands what a journey entails and stands for. That a journey just cannot be a linear progression of emotions, that disappointment is often intersected with humor, that fear is often always enmeshed with hope. And for these reasons galore, a big chunk of the movie is such a satisfying experience.
Even after Pi’s journey is culminated, the movie just doesn’t stand content. And Martel’s novel deserves a lot of plaudits here. For as it is clearly evidenced, the novel is not only replete with rich metaphysical, and spiritual explorations of Pi’s journey, but also beyond it. Because there’s a possibility of one more story of Pi’s survival. Ideally, there could have been as many as Pi wanted, but at the moment there’s just one more; an alternative ending of sorts. Till now, he had been recounting his story to a writer. Pi tells him the Japanese insurance officers did not believe this version of his story. So he chose to tell them a more morbid version. And that story is indeed pretty somber. Pi then asks him which story does he believe? I am not going to divulge the story, neither the writer’s answer. But that’s a question everyone would ask themselves once the movie folds. Being a non-believer myself, I questioned myself what story I would have liked to believe. And to make myself at ease, I told myself that I believed Pi’s tiger-story. But then the more I thought about both the stories, the more I got convinced that it was the second story that would have actually happened. There’s a line between what actually happens and what you would like to happen. And I think it’s that line that divides a lot of believers and non-believers.
What a gobsmacking achievement, this getting right of two different endings equally well. In hindsight, the movie works equally well on two separate planes, both with its own set of beliefs and truths. The movie’s never trying to get you, to hammer a particular point of view. It knows you can have a point of view, and a pretty firm one at that, and it respects that. It just lays out the bare bones of two stories and asks which side do you want to be on. Your propensity to trust the extent of moral turpitude in human beings would decide which story you want to side with.