Toward its memorable climax, Pi Patel (Irfan Khan), the lead protagonist and narrator of director Ang Lee’s 2012 film “Life of Pi,” explains the meaning of his journey at sea by saying, “Without Richard Parker, I wouldn’t be alive today to tell you my story.” A sixteen-year old Pi (Suraj Sharma) and a 500-pound tiger named Richard Parker end up being on the same lifeboat, after a rough sea sinks the ship Pi was traveling on with his family, killing almost everyone on board. One can initially perceive the picture as the tale of a young man surviving and taming a tiger. But Pi’s momentous journey is more than a survival story. Based on author Yan Martel’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel of the same name, “Life of Pi” is a profound story of one man’s survival that centers on asking philosophical and religious questions about the value of things in life.
At the start, we get a detailed narration about Pi’s childhood and family, learning that his family owned a zoo in the Southern part of India called Pondicherry. In spite of being a Hindu, we see that Pi eventually starts believing in many religions. He thinks each religion offers a diverse approach to life and thinking, and it would be imprudent to blindly follow only one religion. Pi’s mother, Gita Patel (Tabu), supports him in his newfound fascination with religion. Pi’s interest in religion early on forms the core of his belief system–a quality that helps him succeed in his journey.
After the fatal shipwreck, Pi quickly adapts to staying alive. He is a daredevil, and with his never-say-die attitude, nothing breaks his soul, even when facing the improbable prospect of surviving an ominous storm at sea and battling a hungry carnivore on his boat. He slowly gathers his strength by thinking fast on his feet, which helps Pi outwit the tiger in many situations. After learning a valuable lesson from his dad, Pi has always been wary about the fragile relationship that exists between humans and animals. He respects the boundaries, and for him some things are better left unconquered. But for Pi, Richard Parker’s presence alerts Pi of grave dangers, enabling him to stay determined and sharp throughout the course of his perilous journey.
Richard Parker is a metaphor for many things in the story. For one, the tiger represents the face of survival in a bleak situation, similar to Pi’s inescapable situation. The survival-of-the-fittest theme resonates here, but Pi’s close bond to the tiger also signifies the manner in which humans can learn and adapt in precarious circumstances. Certainly, a human’s mental capabilities are still unmatched by animals, giving them the edge to outmaneuver deadly beasts. But there is another layer in this metaphor, and that relates to how one can survive the voyage alone, even without the tiger. The moment we see Richard Parker and Pi together in the boat, we know something is not right. There is no way a human can stay alive for long with a tiger, no matter how smart he is. This is where the narrative gets multidimensional, as we slowly try to peel away layers of the plot.
One can interpret Richard Parker as a part of Pi’s imagination, serving as an ultimate source of strength and hope for the character. Pi is more worried about the tiger than the storm or the sea. With each passing day at sea, Pi has only one thing on his mind: not be eaten alive by Richard Parker. As it turns out that if there was no Richard Parker, Pi would have died alone. He becomes attached to the tiger and at one point Pi starts weeping after seeing a sick Richard Parker. At this point as a storyteller, Martel mixes psychological and religious themes. Hungry and battered by the sea, Pi feels that God has meted out harsh punishment for him. For people believing in religion, it is natural to think about God when all hope is lost; Pi questions his faith in God. An island out of nowhere appears, showing the inexplicable nature of God’s powers. The island becomes a rest stop for Pi, helping him to gather his physical and emotional strength and enabling him to chart the final course of his journey.
While Pi battles the sea, Martel creates a magical but believable world around Pi, which is beautifully translated by director Ang Lee. The colorful words from Martel’s pen are exemplified by the film’s vivid color scheme, and some images from the movie bear similarities to the New Age art style that is popular in modern art and pop culture. The moments of fish flying out from water, whales leaping high, and nightfall on the sea are beautifully captured. To make the film more realistic, Lee rarely uses background music; we only hear Pi interacting with the tiger and the surrounding noises coming from the sea.
The film’s ending, as in the book, one can interpret many ways. It is when Pi reveals something more about his journey that we begin to understand the meaning of his voyage. Surely in terms of delivering a surprise, the ending doesn’t fall in the “Keyser Soze” category of twisted surprises from “The Usual Suspects,” as the writer carefully places the onus on the viewer to decide if Pi’s journey is plausible after all. Was Pi really alone with Richard Parker? Was there really an island? The film is not about the multiple flavors of the story line, but, instead, the plot questions God’s existence and His heavenly powers, and how we are governed by our faith.
Nonetheless, “Life of Pi” takes a while to get going; yet when it does, which is in the second half, the film turns into a meaningful and absorbing experience. Those expecting a flashy survival tale will be disappointed, but if one is ready to absorb the film’s unique concept, then there are layers ready to be examined and explored. As an allegorical tale of a young boy who learns the meaning of life and religion, Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi” retains Martel’s grandiose vision through the use of striking images and outstanding performances from the lead actors. Indeed, the movie ranks high in my list of top movies for 2012.