Life of Pi

An In­dian teenager is thrust un­ex­pect­edly into a Hol­ly­wood block­buster, writes James Wigney

Sunday Tasmanian - Tassie Living - - FRONT PAGE -

THE story of how novice ac­tor Su­raj Sharma landed the lead role in Hol­ly­wood block­buster Life of Pi is al­most as ex­tra­or­di­nary as that of the char­ac­ter in the best- sell­ing book it­self.

In Yann Martel’s 2001 award- win­ning novel, the teenage pro­tag­o­nist is lost at sea for more than 200 days af­ter a ship­wreck, shar­ing a lifeboat with a ben­gal tiger in an amaz­ing tale of sur­vival and faith.

The book had long been con­sid­ered un­filmable – break­ing as it does three of the un­writ­ten movie rules of not work­ing with an­i­mals, water or chil­dren.

It was not un­til master di­rec­tor Ang Lee ( Broke­back Moun­tain, Hulk ) came on board four years ago, at­tracted by the big ques­tions posed by the book and the seem­ingly in­sur­mount­able chal­lenges of bring­ing them to the screen, that the film ver­sion fi­nally took off.

Lee re­alised early on that the movie would be made or bro­ken by the ac­tor play­ing Pi, who is the only hu­man be­ing on screen for the bulk of the story, and a search be­gan in In­dia with more than 3000 young men au­di­tion­ing for the role.

Sharma ( pic­tured) had not only never acted be­fore; he didn’t even in­tend to au­di­tion, show­ing up for the call in his na­tive Delhi to give mo­ral sup­port to his brother, who had promised to buy him a sand­wich in re­turn.

Never in his wildest dreams did he imag­ine he would end up car­ry­ing a $ 120 mil­lion 3D film, which has al­ready made more than $ 200 mil­lion around the world.

‘‘ I was sit­ting on the couch when the cast­ing di­rec­tor came up to me and said ‘ Su­raj, you are a teenage In­dian boy, you might as well give this a shot as well’,’’ says Sharma, who had no idea what or who he was even au­di­tion­ing for.

‘‘ And I was not do­ing any­thing in par­tic­u­lar . . . and then six months later, af­ter five call- backs I had to meet Ang.

‘‘ That au­di­tion didn’t go very well but he kind of di­rected me and made me do the whole scene again and the sec­ond time they liked it bet­ter.’’

Sharma had al­ready been touched by Lee – the di­rec­tor’s 2000 hit Crouch­ing

Tiger Hid­den Dragon had con­vinced him to con­tinue karate train­ing – but the pair would go on to forge a bond that went be­yond the movie set.

‘‘ It’s a very spe­cial re­la­tion­ship,’’ Sharma says. ‘‘ Right from the moment I met him I felt that he could see right through me.’’

Sharma also faced some mon­u­men­tal phys­i­cal chal­lenges, not least of which was the fact he couldn’t swim. The film takes place al­most en­tirely on water and was filmed on the world’s big­gest wave tank in Tai­wan.

First Sharma had to learn how to hold his breath for more than 90 sec­onds and then had to feel com­fort­able in the water for long pe­ri­ods of time. He also was put on a diet – mainly of tuna and let­tuce – to lose the weight as his char­ac­ter would af­ter months at sea. As if all that wasn’t enough al­ready for an ac­tor mak­ing his film de­but, Sharma had to re­act to some­thing that wasn’t there.

The ben­gal tiger that is Pi’s only com­pan­ion on his lifeboat was en­tirely com­puter gen­er­ated mean­ing Sharma had to use a com­bi­na­tion of imag­i­na­tion, metic­u­lous prepa­ra­tion and Lee’s di­rec­tion to build the il­lu­sion.

Sharma is not sure whether he has the act­ing bug yet but he knows he wants to be in­volved in film­mak­ing in some ca­pac­ity.

But ed­u­ca­tion comes first and he plans to fin­ish his de­gree in phi­los­o­phy.

The well- spo­ken young man’s life has been changed as surely and as com­pletely as Pi’s af­ter his epic jour­ney.

‘‘ I lived in a really small world of my own,’’ he says of life be­fore Pi.

‘‘ It was the first time I had been out of the coun­try when I went to Tai­wan . . . I learned so many new things . . . It has hon­estly changed my life com­pletely.’’

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