Monday, November 26, 2012

Life of Pi: Was this movie too dense?

Ang Lee's Life of Pi opened over Thanksgiving week worldwide. This movie generated a lot of interest in India. The two principal characters are both Indian - one is Tamil and the other is from Bengal. Full of ruminations on life, π, childhood, innocence, masculinity, family, faith, logic, love and coping mechanisms, Life of Pi has a lot to take in. 

I really like Ang Lee's style - he puts a lot of stuff in his movies and gives you some indication of how you need to approach the material. He sets up the first fourth of Life of Pi with a lyrical visual style and episodic narration that hint at a wide eyed sense of wonder and an openness to the metaphysical. Armed with this guidance, you enjoy the movie for more than what is unfolding on the screen. 

A lot of people have called the movie visually striking. I didn't think it was particularly so. In fact, its not even stylistic - which people often refer to as visually striking. Much of the scenes on the open seas have the familiar smallness of Hollywood studio water tanks. However Ang Lee does stage some scenes with a lot of visual punch. His scenes with the animals on the boat are kinetic and infused with a sense of dread. Midway through the movie, he lays out a magical psychedelic sequence. At all times you get drawn into the film because of the way the shots are framed and where the movement of the characters come from.

The one place in the movie that confounded me was in how Ang Lee chose to wrap up his film. I'm not giving away too much by saying that Life of Pi has a last minute twist in the tale. The really cool part about Yann Martel's book (from which this has been rather faithfully adapted) was that the book ended without the twist and was an exhilarating story in its own right. We all had a chance to absorb that story because of the natural break afforded by the end of the book. Its in the epilogue that Martel uncorked his twist. The impact turned your understanding of the book upside down.

In the movie, Ang Lee doesn't wrap up his primary narrative on a high - he hurries through it. And he barely leaves breathing room between the story and the twist. Because there is not much closure with the primary story and the twist comes a bit too quickly, the impact of what might have transpired on the boat doesn't gut you as much as it did in the book. I'm not sure about why this particular choice was made. Maybe Ang Lee wanted to hold on to his PG rating. Maybe he tried it differently and it didn't work in the editing room. Maybe Ang Lee just didn't think the twist was important enough in the story he wanted to tell.

I have only one other complaint with this movie. A lot of the dialogues delivered by Indian actors often sound clunky - probably because they are wrapping their tongue around words that they wouldn't normally use. This happens in a lot of foreign productions with Indian actors. Someone needs to fix that!

Regardless of what I thought, a number of people came away scratching their heads after the film. Did people unfamiliar with the book, encounter a movie too dense to connect with emotionally? Bollywood glitterati went to see the movie on opening night. They tweeted about it. I sampled what they said to help answer that question.

Worth checking out: Suraj Jagan's excellent song called Manzil for the Indian release of the movie (composed by Shri and KC Loy)


Mind Rush said...

Although I am no celebrity, I agree more with Sandhya Mridul than with Shobhaa De. Freud would be proud!

My Mind was in a Rush during the water sequences. Methinks the alternate ending was underplayed by the director on purpose. What is subtle can go in many directions, depending on the inclinations of the beholder.

Ritu said...

Great idea on showing all the tweets. I don't know who Richa Chadda is but I thank her for her tweet Hahahaha!

I have not see the movie but I read the book. I loved it and you are right the book was great in its own right before the epilogue. But the epilogue added the psychological element to the story.