It has been 11 years since audiences around the world witnessed director Ang Lee’s grand adaptation of Yann Martel’s 2001 novel about a young man lost at sea with only a Royal Bengal Tiger for company. With its profound exploration of spirituality and the human condition, Life of Pi is the kind of film that remains with you long after you first experience it. It collected several accolades, including the Academy Award for Best Director for Lee. From the lush, expansive visuals to the excellent performances by the cast, we’re here to tell you why Life of Pi definitely merits a revisit.
Sunlight streams through the leaves of a tree outside a zoo in Pondicherry as a giraffe grazes. An upside-down sloth hangs off a branch, a blue-and-orange kingfisher flutters around it. A flock of pink flamingos sedately cross a lake before the title of the film appears on screen. The tranquil opening sequence of Life of Pi features the various animals in the Patel family zoo, set to composer Mychael Danna's exquisite — and Academy Award-winning — score which uses traditional Indian instrumentation, woven in with the occasional chirping of birds. Zebras, boars, elephants, snakes, a majestic leopard along with a host of other creatures are all seen against the backdrop of Bombay Jayashri’s soothing voice in “Pi’s Lullaby”. The simple (slightly swirly) font of the credits adds to the elegance of the sequence, one that you can watch again and again without its freshness fraying. Rarely have opening credits felt more therapeutic.
It is a joy to watch Tabu and Adil Hussain (as Pi’s parents Gita and Santosh Patel) gently going back and forth about their son’s inclusive brand of religiosity. A young Pi (Ayush Tandon), who was raised a Hindu, finds himself drawn to Christianity. “Thank you, Vishnu, for introducing me to Christ,” he says in his prayer. Later, he also feels a serene sense of connection to Islam, regularly performing Salah to feel closer to God. Pi’s father, who is disillusioned by the “stories” and “pretty lights” of religion, encourages his son to pursue the path of reason and rational thinking. But despite his misgivings against the institution, he says, “I would much rather have you believe in something I don’t agree with, than to accept everything blindly.” Pi’s mother, on the other hand, affords her son the space to make his own way and understand himself and the world around him on his own terms. “Science can teach us more about what is out there, but not what is in here,” she says, placing her hand on her heart. The film’s nuanced yet wholly uncomplicated portrayal of religion and faith, shown primarily through the lens of a child is endearing, as is the unconditional support of his parents with their differing points of view. It is this freedom to be inquisitive and passionate that will eventually save Pi’s life.
There must be something in the water of Life of Pi because its fantastical hyper-reflectivity results in some truly gorgeous visuals. When an all-grown-up Pi (Irrfan Khan) regales the author (and the audience) about Mamaji (Elie Alouf) and his love for swimming pools, there is a shot of holidayers leaning against the balcony over the Piscine Molitor in Paris — only for a person to swim across the screen, revealing that the scene is in fact being filmed from under the water of the pristine pool after which Pi was named. In the next scene, when Mamaji swims, he looks like he is flying in a cloud-strewn blue sky; such is the crystal clarity of the pool. Later in the film, when Pi (Suraj Sharma) is out on the open ocean, the sheer horror of his situation is underscored by cinematographer Claudio Miranda’s camera work (he won the Oscar that year for his work in Life of Pi). The moment when Pi watches the sun rise over the ocean, the water — golden as an epiphany — acts as a perfect mirror for the sky. The oceans look just as enchanting under the moonlight. Pi watches, rapt, as scores of bioluminescent fish swim up to the surface, causing the dark water to be speckled with a brilliant, blue light. The film’s haunting, contemplative cinematography emphasises the quiet vastness and unforgiving magnificence of the ocean.
The film has pockets of unexpected humour, particularly in the montage of Pi attempting to train the tiger, Richard Parker. He employs the Pavlovian method frequently used by circus trainers, trying to get Richard Parker to associate the discomfort of seasickness with the sound of his whistle. “Prepare to be amazed,” he announces dramatically, pretending to be a ringmaster putting on a show before an audience. Pi’s other tactics include yelling wildly until Richard Parker backs off, and peeing on one side of the boat to establish his territory. Just when he thinks he’s conquered the mighty beast, Richard Parker turns around and soundly sprays Pi on the face, causing him to tumble off the boat and into the water. Tiger: 1, Human: 0. Pi’s habit of speaking to the animals in the film, from politely requesting the horde of meerkats on the carnivorous island to excuse him to having full-fledged conversations with Richard Parker, is winsome. In the final scenes of the film, one of the interrogators from the Japanese shipping company blurts out the non-sequitur: “Bananas don’t float”. This, to him, was the most incredible part of Pi’s survival story. It’s little moments like these that add levity to an otherwise weighty and emotional narrative.
Director Ang Lee has spoken about how he believes Irrfan Khan should have won an award for that iconic goodbye speech alone. The legendary actor reportedly broke down twice while delivering it, even though the scene did not demand any tears. In the film, Khan plays the adult Pi, who narrates his story to a writer searching for inspiration. We notice that while he retains some of the childlike enthusiasm of his younger self, it is filtered through the cynicism brought on by the passage of time, and his life-changing experience on the ocean. Khan brings forth Pi’s restraint and insouciant attitude while narrating, but it is in the final chapter that his complicated emotions surface. After over 200 days at sea, Pi and Richard Parker wash up on the Mexican shore, close to dying. The emaciated tiger climbs off the boat and makes its way towards the jungle. Despite himself, Pi expects Richard Parker to look back at him, to acknowledge their miraculous journey together and to bring their relationship to a close. But Richard Parker just disappears into the jungle, and from Pi’s life. “After all we had been through, he didn't even look back. But I have to believe there was more in his eyes than my own reflection staring back at me,” says Pi, his eyes welling up. “I know it, I felt it, even if I can't prove it.”
When news of Khan’s untimely passing came out in April 2020, it was this quote from Life of Pi that resonated most with fans: “I suppose in the end, the whole of life becomes an act of letting go. But what always hurts the most is not taking a moment to say goodbye.” Just because Richard Parker did not say goodbye in the way Pi hoped does not mean that their bond means any less. Later in the film, an alternative narrative is presented in which Richard Parker is Pi himself, a manifestation of his most primal self, an illusion that gave him a sense of purpose and kept him alive against all odds. But ultimately, we choose to believe that the story with the animals is the one that is true, because that story is full of hope and magic and goodness, just like we hope life itself will be.