‘Life of Pi’ is a fable, a parable, an allegory. No, it’s not. It is the strange and improbable story of a boy trapped in a lifeboat with a ferocious Bengal tiger in the endless Pacific waters. It’s a story of survival through wit and cunning. No, it is not. It is a quest for God and meaning, love and redemption.
Take your pick because ‘Life of Pi’ has the flexibility to be whatever you want it to be. That’s its strength and its weakness, its peak and its valley. Yann Martel’s 2001 international bestseller (and the 2002 Man Booker Prize winner for fiction) was recognized at once for it ‘unfilmable’ characteristics. The bad news is that the difficulty has not diminished a bit over a decade. The good news is that the Chinese-American director Ang Lee has pulled it off, presenting us with a movie true to the book’s difficult theme and breathtaking for its 3-D images.
Piscine Molitor Patel, forced to condense his name to Pi to avoid ridicule by his schoolmates, is a restless young boy searching for a God who can infuse his life with meaning. There is more to life than “fractions and French,” he realizes. Growing up in Pondicherry in Southern India in a Hindu family, he also explores Christianity, Judaism and Islam to expand his spiritual horizon. “Faith has many rooms,” the grownup Pi (Irfan Khan) explains to a skeptical Canadian writer when recounting his remarkable story years later. “Is there a room for doubt in it as well?” asks the writer. “Of course,” replies Pi. “Faith does not become strong unless it is tested.”
Pi’s father (Adil Hussain) is the owner of a zoo stocked with exotic animals. During Indira Gandhi’s emergency rule when constitutional rights are suspended and prospects are bleak for ordinary Indians, he decides to immigrate to Canada with his family and his animals.
The Japanese cargo ship on which Pi’s father, mother and sibling are traveling sinks during a monstrous storm in the Pacific Ocean. Pi (played brilliantly by newcomer Suraj Sharma) lands on a 27-foot lifeboat but his family vanishes in the cruel and roiling waters. The animals go down as well, save for a wounded zebra, an orangutan, a vicious hyena and a rat, all ending up on the same lifeboat.
At daybreak, Pi discovers that there is yet another survivor on board (hidden temporarily from sight under a tarp), a ferocious 440-pound Bengal tiger named Richard Parker, into whose wild eyes he had stared with morbid fascination when making the rounds in his father’s zoo in Pondicherry.
Thus begins a 227-day odyssey that pits a boy against a cat whose growls and snarls fill up space and sky. To survive, Pi builds a makeshift raft for himself, taking care to tie it to the boat so as not to drift away. He spends several days and nights on it, not daring to cross paths with Richard Parker who has dispatched the other animals according to the law of the jungle.
Ultimately, Pi decides to board the boat. Hunger and thirst has removed his fear. If death is the end, he might as well go down fighting. The symbolism is compelling, however: When Pi cuts the raft loose, is he also casting away the doubts that troubled his sensitive mind?
Pi and Parker mark their territory on the boat. Slowly, they begin to make a connection that defies reason and logic, realizing that each is doomed without the other.
Although a digital creation, Parker is a marvel of beauty and power and evokes William Blake’s haunting poem: Tyger! Tyger! burning bright/In the forests of the night,/What immortal hand or eye/Could frame thy fearful symmetry?/In what distant deeps or skies Burnt the fire of thine eyes?/On what wings dare he aspire?/What the hand dare seize the fire?
Nothing tests Pi’s faith more than raw hunger. Spirituality takes a backseat to procuring food and collecting clean water from rain. Yet it is the wild tiger that keeps the wilds of his heart at bay. The elements take on a mystical and floating translucence. Bit by bit, man and beast not only make peace but grow compassion for one another. When the boat bumps against a lush island in the middle of nowhere, Pi discovers that it is overrun with thousands of meerkats. Richard Parker need not be hungry again. Making landfall gives Pi the feeling that his ordeal is over. But it is not so. He discovers that the island is carnivorous. It is only the silent insistence of the tiger that saves him from its fatal attractions.
Eventually the boat reaches Mexico. An emaciated Pi is rescued by shore-dwellers. But Richard Parker? Without even a glance at his companion, he vanishes into the nearby jungle.
When Japanese investigators interview Pi to figure out how and why their ship went down, Pi tells them his story. They reject outright what they consider to be an absurdly fanciful tale. Besides, there is no trace of any carnivorous island anywhere in the Pacific! So Pi tells them another story, giving human shape to the animals in the boat. Perhaps the hyena was none other than the psychopathic cook who terrorized travelers on the ship before it sank. But who were the others? Was Richard Parker a stand-in for nature? The questions linger and what really happened on that boat remains an enigma.
In The Old Man and the Sea, Hemingway’s protagonist battles unseen adversaries gnawing away at the mighty marlin he has caught far into the sea. “Man can be destroyed but not defeated,” is how Hemingway describes his old man. The same can be said of the young Pi but here man and tiger are in such proximity and so visible that all rules are overturned. “My story will make you believe in God,” Pi tells his Canadian interlocutor but even he has to add a twist at the end to confound us with the unfathomable mystery of the seeking heart.
In other words, in almost all respects, ‘Life of Pi’ is a winner.