How the promise of a free lunch led Suraj Sharma to unwittingly land the lead role in Ang Lee’s next Suraj Sharma was your average 17-year-old, going to school, without the slightest inkling of what he wanted to do in life. Circumstances, however, landed him at the audition of Ang Lee’s Life Of Pi two years ago. And the boy who’d never harboured any ambitions to be an actor, found himself playing the central character of Pi.
As Irrfan, Tabu and Suraj (the cast of the film) dropped in for a chat, Suraj reveals how it all happened by sheer luck.
Did you always want to act?*
Suraj: No. It was my brother who wanted to audition for the role and I went along with him. I’d told him “I’ll come if you buy me a Subway salad afterwards.” Next thing I know, I am in an Ang Lee movie! I was a school-going kid, literally, obnoxiously normal. I was in that stage when you don’t know what you want to do with your life. With this film, I went through something life-changing.
What was it like to work with Tabu and Irrfan?*
Suraj: Unfortunately, I didn’t get to share screen space with them. But I’ve spent time with them, and with Ang Lee. I’m one of those lucky people right now. I got the chance of a lifetime. It’s been a learning experience. Two years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to talk like this.
Did you rehearse for what you’re saying right now?*
Suraj: If you go through that journey, and are exposed to new things, it all just comes naturally. You don’t have to fake anything.
Tabu: Ask him if he has a girlfriend.
Suraj: No, there’s no girlfriend (laughs).
So, what’s next? Any directors you want to work with?*
Suraj: I don’t know. I’m going to college now. I can’t really decide things like that, because I’m not anybody to choose.
How much will life change for you after this film?
Suraj: It’s already changed.
‘Life will bring you out… even if you are stuck in the middle of the Pacific with a tiger’
Irrfan, Tabu and teenage actor Suraj Sharma talk about their new film, Life of Pi, share behind-the-scene anecdotes and Irrfan’s struggle with accents
Gopal Naidu (reader): Tell us about Life of Pi.
Irrfan: It’s about this boy stuck on a boat with a tiger. He is in the sea for 227 days. Although he’s prey for the tiger, he manages to convince the tiger not to eat him. The tiger ultimately becomes his saviour, because without it, he would have died of loneliness. On the surface, it is an adventure, but its roots are in life, nature and creation. But, because it’s a 100-million dollar film, these concepts are all in layers beneath the surface.
Suraj, had you read Life of Pi before?
Suraj: I did two auditions for this film, only then I found out what it was about, and then who was directing it. That’s when I read the book… thrice.
Does the film have a specific appeal to an Indian audience?
Suraj: The background is Indian. It’s set in India, before it moves to the ocean. However, this film is not about being Indian or American. It’s about being human. It’s about the courage each one of us possesses, to overcome challenges we haven’t even dreamt of. It’s about believing in yourself and finding belief in something even greater than you. Life will ultimately bring you out of every situation. Even if you are stuck in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with a tiger.
Irrfan, did you see Suraj act?
Irrfan: I got to see only a few scenes. His portion, the scenes in the ocean, were shot first. Mine came later, and when I reached the sets, we were shooting in a one-room apartment, with two people talking about this massive adventure. I asked Ang to give me his footage so I could make some connection between his part and mine. Ang saw a similarity between us. Except for our eyes, which he said were very different. He’s a much more charming boy! But somehow, I managed to look and sound like an older him.
Tabu and Irrfan, you have previously worked together in Maqbool (2003) and The Namesake (2006). Can you recount your respective experiences?
Tabu: Both films were very different from this one. In Maqbool, the relationship between our characters is dark and twisted; while in The Namesake, we play a typical husband and wife.
Irrfan: For me, it was the opposite. I didn’t care about Maqbool being a Shakespearean adaptation. I didn’t bother to read it. For me, it was a love story.
Hindi films create this perception about love, which is not true. You realise it when you kiss a girl for the first time. No, it’s not like what they show on screen. But that perception of love in films is like reality to me. You can’t live that in real life. So I try to live that in cinema. For me, Maqbool was that (sighs)... I was in love.
During The Namesake, I had this sword over my head to learn the Bengali accent. Mira Nair (director) dropped the bomb about the accent. I argued that the character had lived in a foreign land for years. But sure enough, when I met my trainer, he was a Bengali man who had lived abroad for 35 years and yet his accent stayed. So, while everyone else would have fun, go out for dinners and parties, I was busy rehearsing. They would say, “Arey yaar, line hi karta rehta hai (you just keep running dialogues all day).”
Tabu, what did you think when you were offered this role?
Tabu: I didn’t think. I just said yes. I didn’t think Hollywood. I thought Ang Lee. I have seen his work, and I wanted to work with him. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) is my favourite. I got an email saying he would like to meet me. When we met, Ang didn’t say anything for an hour, and we both sat quietly. He later said, ‘It is not the central character, but would you like to do it?’ I agreed. I came back with the script, and we went to rehearse in Taiwan.
Irrfan, what what made you take the role?
Irrfan: I was in New York when I met him. I couldn’t hear him, as he is so soft-spoken. I could only hear one sentence: ‘Would you be part of my film?’ I feel I am fortunate that I am part of this film.
How is the experience of working in India different from working on an international project?
Irrfan: They are more meticulous than us. Everything is on paper. Our industry is more cordial. Even the spot boy might tell the director that this shot doesn’t seem right… and the director may even listen. There, you can’t interfere. Things are compartmentalised. I remember the first international film (The Warrior; 2001) I was doing, where I have a relationship with a boy. I suggested that we should do something with the make-up to make him look more mature. When I told the make-up artiste, she threw a fit saying ‘How can he tell me? Don’t I know my job?’ Also, here, everyone uses a formula. The make-up, the lights, it’s all in a certain way. There, it’s not like that. Even the big actors have to audition for a role in Hollywood. It’s more challenging.
Tabu, we haven’t seen you in Bollywood for years now...
Tabu: I have been hearing that for many years and I still don’t have an answer. There are many factors. I cannot say yes to anyone
Irrfan, where do you feel at home — Bollywood or Hollywood?
Irrfan: It’s about a story which touches your heart. Then you are at home — whether it’s a Punjabi film or American or French.
Irrfan, do you agree that Slumdog Millionaire (2008) put you on a platform where international filmmakers started noticing you?Irrfan:
Ang Lee, Tabu and Irrfan promote Life of Pi Cast & crew (L-R): Adil Hussain (Pi's father), Suraj Sharma (Pi Patel), Tabu (Pi's mother), director Ang Lee and Irrfan Khan (Older Pi)
In itself, Slumdog was an interesting film, but I think it started with The Namesake. It was much more rewarding. But yes, in terms of visibility, definitely Slumdog.Any other international director you would like to work with? Irrfan:
There are so many. I would love to work with Philip Seymour Hoffman if he directs me. I’m a big fan of his. Johnnie too, I would like to work with, he’s a fascinating director. Maybe Zhang Yimou. There are so many others.
Punit Dharod (reader): Over the years, we’ve come to expect exceptional performances from you. How do you select your roles, and how do you approach them?
Tabu: A lot of factors — how does the character fit into the story? Do I have faith in the director? Sometimes it’s just about being the part of a good project.
I don’t know anything about technique. I’ve never been to acting school. I read the script. That’s my preparation. For me, it doesn’t work to think too much about what I’m going to do. I act according to what my director tells me.
Punit (reader): Talking of accents, even the promos of Life of Pi show that you have a distinct accent.
Irrfan: Ang wanted me to have an accent, which was a mix of Canadian-French-Indian. I didn’t know how to go about it. I was frustrated, but later when we went for the shoot, he said we wouldn’t need it. We ended up with a bit of a Canadian accent.
Punit (reader): You did Paan Singh Tomar, and you did The Amazing Spiderman. How do you balance disparate roles?
Irrfan: If I keep on doing the same thing, it becomes difficult to play on another ground. I choose a variety of roles. I look for connection.
Dantal Sabnani (reader): Irrfan, you have developed this reputation of being a serious character actor.
Irrfan: You haven’t seen a lot of my films. I’ve done all kinds of films. But God’s given me a face that makes me look serious.
Gopal Naidu (reader): Do you ever see yourself directing movies?
Irrfan: If I’d done it, I would have never been an actor. There are things about being an actor that I don’t like. That you have to wear particular clothes, bother about your looks, I don’t like that. I’d love to tell stories, but I can’t write to save my life.
Mrinalini Gore (reader): Will you turn down a mainstream role that comes your way?
Tabu: I will never reject it. I am from mainstream cinema; I’m a product of mainstream cinema, it’s where I more feel at home.
(*These questions were asked by Punit Dharoda, Gopal Naidu and Mrinalini Gore respectively, some of the HT Café readers we had invited for the chat.)
— Transcribed by Amrutha Penumudi and Petrina D’Souza
HT Café readers were invited to be part of this special discussion with the cast of Life Of Pi