loses his mother, father and kid brother along with their little zoo when the family is sailing from their hometown of Puducherry or Pondicherry (close to Chennai in India) to Canada. In the end, Pi finds himself on a lifeboat with the most unlikely of companions, a Royal Bengal Tiger. Forced to spend many, many weeks on the tiny boat drifting on the waves, Pi learns to survive against not just Nature’s fiercesome odds, but also a deadly beast.
While New Delhi’s Suraj Sharma’s essays the young Pi, whose carelessness on a cyclonic night costs the life of his parents and brother, Irrfan plays the older Pi.
During a recent chat with me, Irrfan said that it was an impossibly difficult book to adapt for a movie. It was extremely complex and Lee shot the first parts of the film in Puducherry where the story actually begins, later moving to his native Taiwan for the more complex scenes.
He recreated the Pacific Ocean, where Pi’s family perishes on a night of killer waves, in a disused airport. A gigantic water tank was built to simulate the effects of the hurricane in the 3D movie.
With the production company, Fox, pulling out all stops, the shoot seemed so easy. As Irrfan averred, money was never a problem and the challenge of getting the tiger and the boy together was not as imposing as it had appeared in the beginning.
“They had got four tigers from Canada or Russia, but, of course, in the end, it was all about computer graphics.”
Irrfan has only a small role to play in the film and unlike the young Pi, who had a physically punishing and dangerous part to do, the older Pi had to grapple with mental challenges.
Sharma was merely 16 when he signed for Lee’s first three-dimensional adventure. "After three years, the movie is now complete and being a part of the film has been a life-changing experience," Sharma said during a recent chat. "It has really changed me and how I perceive the entire world in many ways… People say that I have grown up personally after this movie. Like I went there as a 16-year-old boy. Now, sometimes I feel like I am 40 years old."
"Earlier, I used to live in my own little shell and everything was small. Now I have realised that the world is this open place with opportunities. Now I know how to deal with situations in a better way and I can work five times harder without it affecting me because I have already worked like that. I've just become more ready for things," Sharma added.
Irrfan agreed with this and said in an important way, the shoot itself had been as perilous as the actual story, where the boy kept the tiger alive and the tiger kept the boy alive.
For each, the other was not just a distraction, but a point of hope, a point of survival. Pi wanted to outwit and outlive the animal, while it must have probably felt the same about the boy. So, both gave each other some kind of meaning to exist.
“Perhaps the tiger would not have lived had it been alone on the boat. It was the presence of the boy that probably encouraged it to continue its fight to find food and sustain itself.”
Irrfan felt that it would be very difficult for an Indian director to replicate Lee’s work in Life of Pi.
“We are just not prepared for that kind of complexity.”
Also, Indian movie companies and helmers are quite content with what they are producing. They have little desire to reach out to an international audience.
However, Irrfan hoped that the new crop of directors would learn to understand the grammar of cinema better, in a way that their own films would hold out a great promise of appealing to a world audience.
“Yes, funding would still remain an issue”.
Irrfan, who has done some extraordinarily interesting roles in equally fascinating films like Pan Singh Tomar, Yeh Saali Zindagi and earlier Maqbool (based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth), is now shooting for Tigmanshu Dhulia’s Sahib Bibi Aur Gangster 2. Part one did not have Irrfan in it and he is stepping into Randeep Hooda’s shoes, who played the gangster. Irrfan is also doing Nikhil Advani’s latest yet-to-be titled work.
With Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, Michael Winterbottom’s A Mighty Heart, Dhulia’s Paan Singh Tomar behind him, Khan is all set to dream big. But those like Tabu who helped him evolve (Maqbool, The Namesake) continue to be in his dreams.
During a recent promotional campaign for Life of Pi in Chennai, when Tabu said that she appears in Lee’s work much earlier than Irrfan does and does not share screen space with him, the actor had a wonderful rejoinder.
“But you are always in my dreams.”
I am sure she is, but Irrfan’s dreams must now include still greater performances than what we have already seen. Of course, I have little doubt about this.
(Gautaman Bhaskaran will be covering the International Film Festival of India at Goa’s Panaji)
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