No, I haven’t read the book.
When I first watched it, I was immediately awed by the experience. Initially, I found that baffling.
Yes, I do love ethereal visual aesthetics and stories with magical and spiritual themes. But, I have also watched other similar films. None of them – not even the works of Andrei Tarkovsky, one of my favourite directors – have spiritually galvanised me like Life of Pi has.
Seriously, I spent months arguing with my online friends and reading online essays about the film. I tried to decipher the magical happenings by relating them to Pi’s religiously syncretic spirituality and his relationship with his rationalist father. Inevitably, I ended up in self-contemplation about my own life.
From all things in life, I get much of my spiritual awakening from a Hollywood film. Why the hell is that?
First thing first, I have the MBTI AKA Myer-Briggs Type Indicator hypothesis.
Around the time of the film’s release, I was extremely obsessed with the personality type classification due to my early stage of “self-searching”. I identified as an INFJ (Google it yourself) and the film’s titular character was identified by many as one as well. I might be subconsciously influenced by the words of strangers.
But, this hypothesis falls apart quickly as I still love the film even after I become disillusioned with MBTI (it is basically horoscope with psychology veneer). Besides, there were also many other fictional characters and real-life public figures perceived as INFJs, none of which I could relate to (one of them was Hitler, for god’s sake).
Maybe it is indeed the films’ depiction of spirituality. After I dissected it again for the first time in almost ten years, the film does feel different from the others.
While “raw” is not how I describe it, the depiction is certainly not understated. Pi is not just a person who identifies with three different religions, he is also one who endlessly explores spirituality; his metaphysical journey is always at the frontline of his life story.
But, it does not feel like the film imposes his worldview upon us. Instead of keeping us as emotionally-detached spectators, it wants us to empathise with his experiences. It also refrains from utilising any explicitly philosophical dialogues; they can get too technical, overt and sanctimonious.
Unusual for a story with a religious main protagonist, it also wants us to be considerate of the opposing worldview. Now, my experiences with some self-proclaimed rationalists tells me they can be as insufferable as religious zealots. But, Pi’s father, Santosh, is not one of those pseudo-intellectuals.
While he can comes across as cold-hearted*, he teaches Pi to not fall for blind faiths and to not let sentimentality controls his life. In fact, not only his son ends up as a spiritually and emotionally well-rounded individual, the latter skill helps him surviving the perils of getting lost at sea; in such situation, even vegetarians like him have to kill animals for food.
The open-minded contemplation of the other worldview also gives us a nuanced paradigm to interpret Pi’s story.
On one hand, we can take his fantastical story as his attempt to suppress his memory, which is horrific as it involves surviving as a castaway, witnessing murders, killing the murderer and cannibalising his rotting cadaver. The memory suppression is a natural response.
At the same time, the film is not robotic enough to dismiss the story’s possibility. Would I believe it if someone claimed to experience it? No, I wouldn’t. But, I also acknowledge that the world is a bizarre place.
I mean, just take a look at nature. Tectonic plates are basically giant chunks of land who always bump into each other. Many of those deep sea creatures look like aliens. The outer space has black holes. Every single living being on earth is each other’s very distant relative.
While the living island cannot scientifically exist, carnivorous plants do exist and the water surrounding the Italian island of Castello Aragonese has significant content of carbonic acid, which can be corrosive if nothing’s done about the climate change. Nature is one giant weirdo.
Scepticism is indeed a must. But, if nature – the tangible and measurable nature – is weird, we shouldn’t dismiss any human experiences simply because they sound weird.
Maybe this is why I was so obsessed with the film. It goes beyond simply depicting a character’s spiritual journey. It tries its best depicting one that is emotionally exhausting but ever-lastingly rewarding… and it wants us to have a taste of it.
And, as I was in the early stage of “self-searching”, I (probably) subconsciously craved something more nuanced than the glorified pigeonholes of MBTI.
Oh, and I have mixed feelings about the film’s multicultural nature.
On one hand, the film could have been more multilingual. As Pi is from Pondicherry, a Tamil-majority Indian union territory that is formerly a French colony, there could have been more Tamil and French dialogues. Instead, most of them are in English.
But, I also acknowledge the film does a relatively great job in depicting the universality of human experiences. From my eyes, while the titular character is inseparable from his cultural and religious identities, people from all over can easily feel for him in spite of the differences.
The film feels even more multicultural when you learn about Ang Lee, the director.
He is a US-based Taiwanese director. His first two feature films are about the lives of Chinese (mainland and Taiwanese) immigrants in the US, his third is about the clash between Chinese traditions and western-influenced modernity, his fourth is a Jane Austen novel adaptation and many of his subsequent films are set in America and feature American characters.
He is certainly a filmmaker who has experiences traversing cultural differences.
As flawed as the film’s multiculturalism can be, I don’t find it tokenist at all. It does help reminding me about the universality of human experiences.
I don’t see Pi as someone who belongs to the “others”. I see him as a fellow human being.
*A bit of tangent about Pi’s father, Santosh.
He does come across as cold-hearted. But, I don’t believe he is. There are times when his emotions are glaring for everyone to see.
He looks genuinely sad when he announces the family’s migration to Canada, he tries to physically fight the French cook for disrespecting his vegetarian wife and insulting Indians like him as “curry eaters” and he – along with his family -looks red-faced afterwards.
Oh, and he names one of his sons – the titular character – Piscine Molitor. Why? Because his friend is a swimmer whose favourite swimming pool is at the Piscine Molitor Hotel in Paris. There is nothing rational about that.
He is just as interesting as his youngest son.
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