Filmmaker Ang Lee says the making of Life Of Pi was an arduous journey, but a spiritual one that was worth it

For the last three-and-a-half years, celebrated filmmaker Ang Lee, has been living with a beast. One he learned to tame. Just like Pi survived the tiger. On November 23, Ang Lee will be a free man as he lets the beast out into the world. He was just in Mumbai the day before and still seemed to be recovering from jet lag. But that didn't stop him from making sure that the projection at Six Degrees, Sathyam Cinemas, was exactly as how he wanted it to be before he gave restless journalists a 20-minute preview of the film.

Rarely do journalists clap at press meets. But on Wednesday, they clapped after every scene. And with good reason. We haven’t seen anything like this before. Certainly not in 3D. Lee screened a scene of Pi’s life before the shipwreck, the entire scene of the ship being hit by the storm picturised so vividly that James Cameron would approve. The scene where Pi meets the tiger and another where he survives the tiger, visual poetry with strong emotional appeal. “This is one of the best projections I’ve seen around the world,” said Lee, quite impressed with the response from the audience.

“These scenes are just to bring the crowds in,” Lee told us later in the afternoon during an exclusive interview. “The film is more philosophical than what the promotional scenes and trailers suggest,” he promised.

Big responsibility

Entrusted with the responsibility of turning Yann Martel’s bestselling novel into a film, he spent a lot of time wondering if it were at all possible to bring Life Of Pi alive on the big screen, Ang Lee told mediapersons in the morning after showing us the clips. “Fox approached me about four or five years ago and said ‘You’re the only one who can do it’. I spent eight months wondering how I can crack it. How do you create illusion out of a story? And then there was the philosophical question the book addresses. It seemed like a naïve, silly idea to turn it into a mainstream movie and then I realised that with 3D, I could make the audience feel adrift, along with the character. Yes, it would be a risk doing it in 3D, but doing it in 2D would’ve just been a bad idea.”

Thus started Lee’s long and arduous journey. “It was pretty painful. Anything spiritual comes from suffering, but the journey is worth it. I had to work with a kid, a tiger and water in 3D, it was a leap of faith to go outside Hollywood and raise the bar technologically, and do it without Tom Hanks across the Pacific... Just a 16-year-old boy, and a tiger I won’t see for three years because it would be put in later through visual effects. It was tough convincing the studio on why they must spend $ 25 million on what they considered literature property but I managed to persuade them.”

Lee auditioned around 3,000 kids before he discovered Suraj Sharma and spent a lot of time mentoring the 17-year-old to help him prepare for the role of Pi. “He’s a discovery who will vow the world,” said Lee. To ensure that the film was credible to the source, Ang Lee shot quite a bit of the film in Puducherry. He also made a couple of significant changes to the book — one was the structure with an older Pi narrating his story (Irrfan Khan plays the older Pi) and the other was to give Pi a love interest... a classical dancer (Chennai-based Shravanthi Sainath). “He’s a 16-year-old boy. He would obviously think of girls,” Lee reasoned.

Shooting in Tamil Nadu was a breeze, he said. Armed with a culture consultant and dialect coach, Lee made sure he had tweaked the language with the right amount of flavour. “We didn’t make the accent too heavy because it had to be understood by the world,” as Irrfan told us later. “I just went with his vision. He guided me at every stage because this is a rather complex film. Lee didn’t even have to audition Irrfan or Tabu because he had seen them in Namesake.

The tough part was creating the ocean waves and the scenes with the tiger in the middle of the ocean. Lee went back home to Taiwan, took over an abandoned airport and converted it to a huge tank. “A lot of the tiger was done here in India through visual effects technicians in Mumbai and Hyderabad.”

Over 3,000 people had contributed to shaping the film, with over 300 rewrites after Yann Martel was shown the second draft. “He said he did like it, I hope he was not being polite. I hope he liked it. But once it’s out, it’s your movie not mine,” said Lee. “The movie directed me. I just had to push myself and get outside my comfort zone,” as Lee told Kamal Haasan later in the evening during a long conversation as the actor-director of Vishwaroopam raved about the footage.

Life Of Pi got rave reviews after it premiered at the New York Film Festival and will open the International Film Festival of India, Goa, later this month.

(The film will release in English, Hindi, Tamil and Telugu in India on November 23)