Save me, O God,
for the waters have come up to my neck.
I sink in deep mire,
where there is no foothold;
I have come into deep waters,
and the flood sweeps over me.
Many years ago Walt Kelly wrote in his comic strip “Pogo,” “When you starve with a tiger, the tiger starves last.” Although the young Indian Piscine Molitor Patel (Suraj Sharma) has probably never heard of Kelly or his Geor gia swamp ‘possum, that is precisely what he fears in director Ang Lee and screen writer David Magee’s masterful adaptation of Yann Martel’s best-selling novel.
As in the book, the youth’s ordeal at sea is framed by the adult Pi (Irrfan Khan), living in Canada and telling his bizarre tale to the Writer (Rafe Spall). Thus we know that Pi survives the ordeal, our suspenseful interest in the film being “how” rather than whether he survive. How could anyone, let alone a teenager, survive 227 days in a lifeboat shared with a fierce Bengal tiger?
The sea story is prefaced by the sequence in Pi’s hometown of Pondicherry, India where the precocious boy (played by Ayush Tandon) and his brother live with their family on the grounds of the zoo that they own. His secular parents, both Francophiles, burden him with the name Piscene, taken from the name of a French swimming pool where they had spent a family vacation—the word means “swimming pool.” However, Piscene’s English-speaking friends enjoy taunting him by calling him “Piss,” so he shortens it to Pi, and to make sure they remember his preferred name, in math class he carries out the 3.14 to a hundred or more figures.
Fascinated by the zoo animals, he would like to befriend the Bengal tiger that has mistakenly been given the name of Richard Parker. However, when his father catches him getting too close to the cage, he teaches his son a harsh lesson by tying a goat to the bars and making Pi look at what the tiger does to it.
This being a Hollywood film made for the American market, there is added to the original story a romance of the teenaged Pi with a lovely dancer. Perhaps because of the time required for this—although it is brief—the funniest incident in the book involving his religious faith is left out. Despite his totally secular parents, Pi is drawn to Hinduism, his hero being Krishna. Then one day he ventures into a small Catholic church, and a friendly priest begins the process of telling him about the Christian God. Pi does not understand why a God of love would allow his son to die, but he likes the love part. He also befriends the imam of the local mosque and comes to admire their prayer devotions and the teaching of submission to God’s will.
Pi attends services at all three places of worship, none of the leaders or his parents knowing of his multi-faith practice. In the novel Pi is with his parents in the town market when each of the clergy come up to him, and they, and his parents are astonished at his interfaith beliefs. There is a funny uproar as each clergyman says that it is impossible for them both to be a member of the other two faiths because he attends his place of worship.
The main story begins with Pi’s father announcing that because of the hard economic and political times the family will be selling the zoo grounds and taking most of the animals with them to Canada. Despite his objections, they are soon aboard a Japanese tramp steamer bound for Canada. A huge storm arises, buffeting the ship so much that Pi awakens in the middle of the night. Unable to arouse his sleeping brother, he goes up on deck where the waves are pouring over the ship. Amidst the chaos he falls on top of a lifeboat and then is swept into the sea. The underwater shot of him struggling toward the surface while behind him we see the still lighted freighter sinking toward the bottom is both a terrible and a beautiful sight, the 3-D adding greatly to the effect. Pi manages to climb aboard the boat. He sees Richard Parker awash in the sea, and though at first he tries to keep the tiger away, it scrambles aboard and disappears under a large canvas sheet covering the central part of the boat.
The winds and waves finally subside and the sun comes up, and Pi discovers that he shares the boat also with an injured zebra, a hyena, and soon an orangutan that swims to the boat. The terrified tiger remains hidden under the canvass. Over the next few hours and days the harsh lesson imparted by Pi’s father is repeated. First the poor zebra and orangutan succumb to the hyena, and then the smaller predator to the larger one as Richard Parker emerges.
Pi’s concern is how to avoid the fate of the smaller, weaker animals. Besides his inventiveness—he fashions a raft from paddles, nets and life jackets which he ties with a long rope to the lifeboat—he has his zoo experience from which he has learned much of animal psychology. (This is especially enjoyable in the novel, which provides more details than the film.) And, he finds at his end of the boat a cache of canned water, biscuits, flares, and, best of all, a “Survivor’s Manual” crammed with helpful information on coping with life on the open sea. The Manual and supplies will sustain his body; his knowledge of animals and of the need to train, rather than to befriend, Richard Parker, will insure that he will have a body to sustain. He begins what proves to be a long training process by rocking the boat in order to make his fierce companion seasick.
How Pi physically survives is interesting, but equally fascinating, especially for people of faith, is the spiritual and emotional aspects of his survival. We see that each of the three faiths contribute to his not giving in to despair. He believes that he and Richard Parker are bound together and dependent upon each other for their well-being. Despite the appearances that this is a harsh, uncaring universe, he keeps his faith in a loving God, and, true to his Muslim teaching, he submits to God’s will that he must endure suffering.
The 227-day floating on the sea ends when he wakes up and finds the boat has come ashore on an island, one over-run by millions of meerkats. This sequence is even more bizarre than the previous one. After spending one night there, Pi makes a jolting discovery that impels him to get back into the boat with Richard Parker and push out to sea. The image we see of the island, the outline of which resembles a human being lying on its back, will have film fans wondering and debating its meaning for a long time.
Indeed, the meaning and veracity of Pi’s story is a concern for the unnamed Writer listening to Pi. It was as well for the two investigator sent by the Japanese owners of the doomed ship, who came to prefer a more rational explanation to Pi’s survival than his tale of sharing a lifeboat with a tiger and then landing on a strange island which cannot be found on a map. No one has seen any trace of the tiger, so the Writer, like us, is left to decide for himself whether to accept the seeming mythical, even, mystical tale, or an alternate rational account, of the youth’s survival.
Ang Lee and his crew have done wonders with the novel, his use of 3-D being the most effective since Hugo and Avatar. Both filmmaker and novelist refuse to humanize the tiger, treating the relationship between human and beast without sentimentality—even at the end of the story. The CGI-created tiger is entirely realistic: as we look into its eyes in some scenes, William Blake’s’ words might well come to mind, “T
iger, tiger, burning bright…” The luminous scenes of fish, a breaching whale, and a school of flying fish are breath-takingly beautiful. Even better is the story itself and the fine acting of first time actor Suraj Sharma, and the sense of wonder—about Nature and God—with which the film leaves us.
1. What is your favorite scene in the film, and why?
2. What do you think of the way in which Mr. Patel teaches Pi his lesson? What do you think is his motive for such harshness? When his father says, “You think tiger is your friend, he is an animal, not a playmate,” Pi replies, “Animals have souls… I have seen it in their eyes.” What do you believe about this? How much sentimental anthropomorphism do you think we inject into pets and other creatures?
3. How does Pi’s Hinduism make possible his belief that he can embrace three faiths? What does he gain from Christianity and Islam that will contribute to the survival of his spirit during his long ordeal at sea?
4. What do you think of the refusal to sentimentalize the tiger and its relationship to Pi? How does Pi gain dominance over the vastly larger and more powerful beast?
5. What are some of the faith issues that Pi faces during his ordeal? Compare his prayer—” God, I give myself to you. I am your vessel” —with some of the Psalms.
6. What do you make of the episode on the strange island? Some viewers—see the discussion section for the film at Imdb.com—argue that it is a sequel about survival by cannibalism, a reference to Pi’s alternate story of his survival. What do you think?
7. At his Montreal home Pi tells the Writer, “All of life is an act of letting go but what hurts the most is not taking a moment to say goodbye.” To what do you think he is referring?” Have you had such an experience?
8. How did you feel at the end of the film? What have you gained in understanding of the world and of God, and of their relationship?