Life of Pi
An Indian teenager is thrust unexpectedly into a Hollywood blockbuster, writes James Wigney
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.’’