When Torontonian Mychael Danna first read Canadian author Yann Martel's Booker Prize-winning novel, Life of Pi, his initial reaction was: "I hope no one tries to make this novel into a film. Because it's such a beautiful book and I just couldn't imagine it ever being made into a film without Disneyfying, taking it far away from the essence of what the book is."
Nearly a decade later, the Winnipeg-born composer, who divides his time between residence in Toronto and Los Angeles, is thrilled that Academy Award-winning director Ang Lee actually made a movie of that book since that not only won Danna his first-ever Golden Globe award in January, but also got him two Oscar nominations, his debut in that exclusive list.
Danna, who grew up in the small town of Burlington in the Canadian province of Ontario, is on the shortlist for Best Original Score for a Motion Picture and nominated along with Carnatic exponent Bombay Jaishri for Best Original Song - Pi's Lullaby.
Delving into Indian music, the core of the Life of Pi soundtrack, is hardly alien to Danna. Strains of India run through his life - he's married to Indo-Canadian Aparna, with whom he has two children. He has also worked on a half dozen other films with an Indian backdrop, from Mira Nair's 'Monsoon Wedding' to Deepa Mehta's 'Water', for which he collaborated with AR Rahman. He brings to the table an exposure to the various strands of Indians music, across regions, from classical to Indian pop to "Bollywood extravaganza."
While the Irayimman Thampi Memorial Trust has claimed that the central number from the film, Pi's Lullaby, was derived from the Malayalam composer's work, Omanathinkal Kidavo, Danna stresses, "It's definitely an original piece of work." It was composed during sessions in Mumbai, as he said, "Jaishri and I were in Mumbai and Ang on Skype, we would write a line and then she would translate it and then Ang would have a suggestion. I mean I was right there when it was created. The one thing I'd say is lullabies in every culture, they have a very specific purpose - a mother singing to a child. I think you see similar imagery and similar turns of phrase in lullabies in every culture."
The lullaby, that forms the sonic backdrop for the film's captivating opening credits, is, in itself, a superb work, which creates a distinct tone for the film. "We wanted to set Pi's childhood up in a very careful way so that we feel the sense of love that he grew up in and the sense of family and safety and warmth and the beauty of where he was born and grew up. Of course, he's going to lose all that in the course of the film so it's very important we set up this relationship rather than saying it with words, it's so much more artful to say it with music and images."
Ang Lee pitched the project to Danna about five years back. The book had often been considered "unfilmable" and, as Danna said, "nothing about it kind of suggested a mainstream film, either its subject matter which is religion and philosophy and the characters, which are South Asian and wild animals." What followed was a "very long process."
He received early footage in late 2011 and travelled to Mumbai in December that year. "The music had to be very rich. Rich in the sense it had to be as big and lush as the images were, but also rich in a cultural sense. We knew that it would have to be Eastern and Western and yet not make a big deal of either, in the same way Pi Patel as a character is someone for whom there's no East and West, it's all different facets of the same reality. The music also had to be like that and just easily flow from East to West and combine the two in a very natural and effortless way," Danna said. It also involved a large undertaking, with an orchestra, choirs, an eclectic range of instruments, reflecting the film's visual grandeur.
Danna does have a degree in music composition from the University of Toronto and has studied ethnomusicology, but his mastery of Indian music is largely self-taught, with no formal training. Though, as the awards season has proved, his peers in the industry have appreciated the manner he harmonized the score with the film's temperament, as evidenced by the Golden Globe success.
As the Academy Awards are scheduled in Los Angeles for Sunday, February 24, he will be hoping for an encore. Or two.