By Aditi Saxton
JESUS CRYING on the cross, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” theologians argue, is the son of God’s most human moment, that his unrelieved suffering binds him irrevocably to us enjoined sinners. Ang Lee too abandons his young protagonist Piscine Patel (Sharma) to a CGI tiger’s roaring and it creates the movie’s strongest connection to the audience, the fact of this young, fresh talent emoting so plausibly to what must have been basically a blue screen.
More than a decade after it was published and became the most popular Booker book of all time, Yann Martel’s involved allegory of faith still has its claws in us. Perhaps because gnarly questions about what we believe are palatable when presented as a tender tale about an Indian boy and a Royal Bengal tiger. In the biopic sequence that prefaces his adventure on the high seas, we learn Piscine’s family runs a zoo and from the quaint picturisation of Puducherry we can safely say, “Danny Boyle, I don’t think we’re in Mumbai anymore.” Pre-pubescent Piscine has embraced all the religions on offer, Hinduism via mom’s (Tabu) telling of mythology, Islam from the Azan and the aural appeal of Arabic and Christianity through a patient priest. For those who’ve had identical, if not deeper, exposure to these religions without experiencing such spiritual affinity, any confusion is quelled by Pi’s ability to mathematically express, to a staggering decimal point, his own adopted symbol/name. He comes bundled with his own creation myth.
Equally well prepared are we for things beyond our ken — bio-luminescence that looks like the view from the Hubble, a sky-splitting thunderstorm during which Pi moves from a totally teenage exhilaration to a beaten figure cowering under a tarp and a dorado that changes colour as it is hatcheted. In the book, “I felt like I was beating a rainbow to death.” In the film, “Thank you Lord Vishnu, for coming in the form of a fish and saving our lives.” Martel’s laurels rest on solid defence of Pascal’s bet —that the rationally inclined are better off believing in God than in playing atheist odds. He did this by rigorously researching marine life, castaway accounts (the whimsically named tiger, Richard Parker, is a tip o’ the hat to historical castaways coincidentally of that name), ledgers and manuals, by building a base of prosaic reality to layer the magic on.
When an adult Pi offers an account of cannibalism, we’ve been sufficiently bludgeoned by beauty to prefer the tiger’s tale
Lee is better at having a moral premise emerge from physical action, as he allowed to happen in Brokeback Mountain, where two men grappling in a tent became a parable for love’s violence. He does repeat the Crouching Tiger feat by creating stills so lovely they seem the work of an old master in our new media. Richard Parker is the CGI answer to Blake’s ‘What immortal hand or eye/ Could frame thy fearful symmetry?’ But visuals hardly stand-in for vision and the bits in blue get boring and to relieve the magnificent monotony, all we get are theological imponderables — is this all maya, if Richard Parker is a fearsome God then why must he be tamed? When an adult Pi (Khan) accepts the incongruities of his fable, condenses it to a darker account with cannibalism and the other canned stuff of survivor procedurals, and asks which version is preferable, we’ve been sufficiently bludgeoned by beauty to pick the tiger. But after tossing about all that while, can’t help but wish that between the tiger and the boy, there was more left to chew on.
Aditi Saxton is Features Editor, Tehelka.