His first audition, his first attempt at acting, watching himself on the big screen for the first time… Delhi-based Suraj Sharma, the star of Ang Lee’s celebrated film, Life of Pi, recounts his experiences to Sudhish Kamath

As Pi discovers in Yann Martel’s bestseller, God does work in mysterious ways. One moment, a gawky teenager was accompanying his brother to the audition, the next he was asked to give it a shot.

Delhi-based Suraj Sharma, at 19, is the star of Ang Lee’s Life of Pi that has opened to rave reviews around the world. He was in Chennai recently for the promotions of the film and sat down for yet another one among the thousand interviews he had given around the world.

“I saw it one day before the New York screening,” he reveals. And how did it feel watching the film that's now celebrated around the world?

“The making of it was so special and personal that I didn't want to anyway ruin that image I had in my head. So I went in a little bit nervous. I don't like seeing myself in the mirror. Why would I want to see myself enlarged like that? But half an hour in, I got absorbed. I wasn't watching me; I was watching it unfold as Pi. When we were shooting it, everything was just blue. Now suddenly, all these vivid colours. There is so much. I watched it and felt just overwhelmed by the end. For 15 minutes, I couldn't say anything. All those 3000 familiar names going up on the screen, it was so overwhelming. I turned around, looked at my friend and said, ‘How am I a part of this? I don't know how we made that!’”

Moved by the subject

Though he had read the book and the script hundreds of times, he was still moved.

Since most of the tiger and the visual effects were to be put in later, the set had backdrops of blue that would later be replaced with the tiger and the sea-scape during the post-production. Considering that for at least an hour of the film, he has to be in a boat with a tiger that wasn't there on the set, Suraj had his task cut out.

“I acted with nothing around. In one scene when I am trying to fight it, there was a blue man... but other than that, nothing. I think the blue man was harder to work with than nothing! Because you are looking at a blue man and trying to think of him as a tiger.”

Suraj had beaten 3000 kids for the role. “I didn't know that I had to beat 3000 kids for the role. I just had to audition. Honestly, I wasn't expecting. I didn't want it initially. It was my first audition, my first attempt to act... so when I mean unexpected, I really mean UNEXPECTED.”

Not acted at all? He had a small role in a school play when he played a dad during the graduation day for his seniors. Other than that, he played a tree once.

“So it came out of the blue and took control of me. I am so glad I took that jump because the last two and a half years have been the most beautiful, most amazing thing to have happened to me,” he adds.

For his first audition, he had to introduce himself. The second, he had to read out the survival manual. The third, “I cannot tell you,” he says embarrassed. The fourth was the long monologue towards the end.

“The time from the audition to now is a blur. For three months, it was just training, I don't remember how many levels of auditions and tests we did. I would wake up and do yoga with dad and Ang. After that, I had to learn how to swim. Three hours of water training on the boat, on the raft, learning sea skills, ropes and cutting fish. I had to gain 10 kilos and then I had to lose weight to gain muscle.”

He gained 10 and lost 15 since the role also required him to look thin and emaciated. “It's a physical role, so I had to gain that strength. When I had to lose weight, it was a lettuce and tuna diet...if you wanted taste, you could have tabasco sauce. Ang was trying to build Pi. So he put blocks of Pi in front of me so that by the end, I didn't have to act, I just had to be a little bit of me that was already Pi. There was a very spiritual side to it. Obviously, I also had to learn how to act. So Ang used to give me acting training. We were going through scenes from plays like Oedipus Rex and we would watch movies from the 60s and 70s. Not just serious, even funny movies like Young Frankenstein and It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. My favourite among the movies he gave me was Bicycle Thieves.”

During the process of filming, he fell in love with movies. “I had never been on a set before. I learnt from the crew. I learnt from the props team, I learnt something from the stills, from the camera people, I learnt something from the lights department... everybody taught me something. We had been together in a small space for so long. We became a family, much more than a family. We went through some serious stuff and it was intense. Literally, we went through Life of Pi in the most real sense you can think of. I was in Taiwan for 10 months.”

His life wasn't the same again. From an average student who was getting 50-60 marks, he went on to score 94 per cent in his 12th boards after dropping a year for the film. He chose Philosophy at St. Stephens. “I wanted to do Psychology or Philosophy because I want to be a filmmaker and that involves studying different life systems that help you tell stories with meaning.” What about acting then? “I'm not sure about acting. I want to be on set. I want to be a storyteller, a moviemaker. Acting entails too much.”