Oscar winning director Ang Lee’s adaptation of the ‘unfilmable’ Booker Prize winning novel Life of Pi is a visual spectacle, which takes CGI and 3D to new emotional heights but at the heart of the film is the performance by novice actor Suraj Sharma as Pi.
Sharma beat out 3000 hopefuls to land the role of Pi, a spiritually curious teenager whose family owns a zoo in Pondicherry, a former French colony in India. His family move to Canada and sets sail on a cargo ship with the zoo’s animals, which will be sold on arrival. The ship sinks and Pi is the only human survivor. He thankfully finds a lifeboat but his companion for the perilous journey is a Bengal tiger called Richard Parker. Sharma, who now studies philosophy at university, had to go through some exhausting method acting tactics to play Pi. Losing 20 percent of his bodyweight to match Pi’s 227 days at sea, Sharma meditated and Ang Lee made the crew keep their distance from Sharma to enhance Pi’s sense of isolation. Pi’s story, which an older Pi in the film and book recounts to a visiting writer, is one that will “make you believe in God”. An awakening occurred to Sharma during filming.
“We were coming to the last scenes on the ocean, so I was extremely tired and extremely thin and always kind of hungry,” Sharma explains. “I was meditating a lot; we were doing this for so long that we got to the point where we were sort of bottoming out. I hit something at that point. I don’t know how to explain it, a little bit crazy I guess. Not crazy in the normal sense though it was just very, you know, the ocean is unnaturally calm, kind of like that.”
Did Sharma use that for his performance?
“Yeah, I totally did. It’s my understanding now of what spirituality is. I didn’t understand what it was at first and I still can’t define it or explain it but I think I was vaguely close at that point.”
This mirrors Pi’s journey. Pi was raised a Hindi but converts to Christianity and Islam and practices all three forms of religion before his journey with Richard Parker, a creature he must respect, help and fear while stranded at sea. To make things trickier for Sharma, Richard Parker was a CGI character, even though the film used real tigers to base their spectacular creation on.
“Once when they [the tigers] were being trained I was standing with two of my friends from the crew and at one point someone said something louder than usual and one of the tigers just looked right at him in the eyes and at that moment you start to realise that they hurt. It came by accident but you gained so much because you get this sudden sense of chill and were just frozen at that point. You try reliving stuff like that in your head many times over and you just get there.”
Sharma may pursue a career in film but behind the camera instead of in front of it.
“I do feel very strongly that I want to be associated in film work and filmmaking. I don’t get that kind of feeling anywhere else, so it really is the only thing that’s really driving me.”
Is that because of Ang Lee?
“Ang, the entire journey, the crew, seeing what they were put through and seeing how you survived. We made something that was very beautiful. It’s very inspiring and something I can’t really let go of. It’s something I will really cherish for probably the rest of my life. The entire thing just means so much to me that it’s all I want to do. It was hard and intense as hell but I will probably want to relive the entire thing.”
Life of Pi opens on Tuesday, January 1