Life, as they say, is a journey, and that’s never so clear as when watching a life story unfold in the hands of a masterful film director. In Life of Pi, the voyage is both literal and symbolic, as the title character is forced to traverse the high seas under Grimms’ fairy tale-like circumstances that must be seen to be — well, if not believed, then at least experienced at a deep level. At the same time, the young, Indian lead character, a devoted spiritual seeker, undergoes an intense inner journey as well.
Slumdog Millionaire, the multi-Academy Award winning 2008 film, similarly explores a young, Indian’s life journey as he navigates the Dickensian streets of Mumbai, constantly relying on his wiles to survive, while also seeking love and, ultimately, fabulous wealth and the respect he deserves.
In both films, the main character’s stories are told in flashback to authorities who don’t initially believe them. This device is used as a way to heighten the other-worldly nature of both plots. In Slumdog, every flashback explains how the longtime street urchin acquired the knowledge to correctly answer questions on a popular television game show. In Life of Pi, the flashbacks are based on a possibly true story being told by a lively, if not entirely reliable narrator, who turns his tale into a religious fable. Both films are hugely ambitious and visually stunning, and each has multiple actors playing the lead role at different ages. When Life of Pi and Slumdog Millionaire go to the mat in this Smackdown, only one mostly innocent Indian boy hero can come out on top.
Based on Yann Martel’s best-selling novel, Life of Pi begins in Canada with the adult Pi (Irrfan Khan) being interviewed by a struggling writer (Rafe Spall). A mutual friend has instructed the writer to visit Pi because he has a story that will make him believe in God.
Pi’s story starts in his hometown of Pondicherry, a former French colony, where his parents own a zoo. A curious and intelligent young boy, he begins to study religions the way other kids collect action figures. He reads comics about Hindu gods, has long talks with Jesus, and prays to Allah five times a day.
When Pi is a teenager (now played by Suraj Sharma), his father decides to close the zoo and move the family to Canada, where they will sell the animals and start a new life. So Pi, his family and the animals set sail on a Japanese cargo ship – a modern-day ark, after a fashion, that gets caught in a terrible storm. Pi soon finds himself adrift in a far-too-small lifeboat with an injured zebra, a maniacal hyena, an orangutan known as Orange Juice, and a 450-pound Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. The laws of nature and feline appetite being what they are, the occupants of the lifeboat are soon whittled down to Pi and the all-too-testy Richard Parker. Pi must find a way to survive in the middle of the ocean, where his mortal enemy is also his only companion.
The Defending Champion
Slumdog Millionaire, written by Simon Beaufoy and based on the novel Q & A by Vikas Swarup, is the story of street urchin Jamal Malik, played at different ages by three actors, chief among them Dev Patel. As an eighteen-year-old, Jamal becomes a highly successful contestant on India’s version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire, captivating the Indian masses. Unfortunately for him, the show’s smarmy host (Anil Kapoor) is jealous of the boy’s success and is convinced Jamal is somehow cheating. How else could a tea server from Mumbai’s sprawling slums possibly know the answers to questions that stumped some of India’s brightest minds?
The host turns Jamal over to a police detective (Irrfan Khan again), who tortures the young man in hopes that he’ll confess to cheating. Instead, Jamal tells the increasingly sympathetic detective how he triumphed on the show, primarily by jumping back to different episodes in his life that gave him the requisite knowledge to answer each one.
We follow young Jamal and his brother Salim (also played by three actors at various ages) on adventures ranging from lighthearted to horrifying. Along the way, Jamal bonds with a homeless girl named Latika (played as a young woman by Freida Pinto in her career-making debut), and their friendship blossoms into love, even as she moves in and out of his life.
Jamal is a scrappy hero who would make Charles Dickens proud, and Slumdog is a fairy tale infused with gritty realism (with a dash of rollicking Bollywood style). Jamal recounts the traumas of his childhood, which include debilitating poverty, the witnessing of his mother’s murder by an angry mob, his own torture and Latika’s forced prostitution. Yet there is also humor in this dark tale, as when he jumps into a latrine pit in an effort to catch a glimpse of a beloved movie star, or he plays a trick on Salim that involves red hot chili peppers and a sensitive body part.
Under Danny Boyle’s energetic direction (with help from co-director Loveleen Tandan) , India becomes a character in itself, from its teeming, dirty streets, landfills and seemingly endless slums to the beauty of its shrines, luxury high-rises and the majestic Taj Mahal. Jamal and Salim must play every angle to survive, so when they give unauthorized tours at the Taj, making up their history on the fly and stealing the tourists’ shoes for good measure, the mixture of comedy and pathos is quite poignant.
Where Slumdog is wonderfully frenetic, cutting from Jamal on the game show to his escapades with Salim, Life of Pi plays more as a Zen koan, best appreciated with the aid of yogic breathing and liberal use of the third eye – in this case, a pair of 3D glasses. The narrative is often more than a little clumsy, but director Ang Lee and screenwriter David Magee don’t seem concerned. The first half plays like a litany of introductions to both people and BIG THEMES, but Lee hits visual his stride with the gut-wrenching and dizzying shipwreck that launches the experience into another realm.
Both films, of course are total fantasy, and yet an audience willing to suspend disbelief will be drawn into both stories in unexpected and surprisingly touching ways. Pi is an incredibly ambitious movie that could not have been made just a few years ago. The three-dimensional special effects are magnificent, none more so than the combination live-action/computer animation of Richard Parker, Lee’s latest crouching tiger with a deceptively straitlaced name. Many of the scenes are like paintings come to life, such as when the ocean fills with luminous jellyfish or a mysterious, carnivorous island breathes in and out like a human body. The storm sequences are also terrifyingly realistic.
Suraj Sharma carries the film and does an excellent job. From trying to train the tiger using Pavlovian techniques to screaming at God about his situation, Sharma is both entirely believable and deeply affecting. Slumdog, however, edges Pi for acting honors. As the tea-wallah-turned-media-sensation, Dev Patel shines in a part that could easily have been cloyingly overplayed, and the supporting players have meatier, more interesting roles. Gerard Depardieu’s brief appearance as a nasty French cook on the ill-fated cargo ship in Life of Pi is something of a puzzler. The role is so small and he is such a big presence that he sticks out like a sore thumb. It’s a part that would hardly be memorable if played by a lesser known actor.
Both films are excellent and well worth viewing. If you’re in the mood for a glimpse of life in the increasingly gentrified yet benighted Mumbai, the romantic and action-packed Slumdog, is a thrill ride through landscapes most of us hope we never see. But if you’re up for a slower, more contemplative look at life’s big issues — not to mention a short course on how to train your tiger — you might want to set sail with Pi. For my tastes, I’m picking the funny and frightening Slumdog Millionaire as our hands-down winner, simply because of its infectious optimism and life-affirming vitality.