Even though for some out there, 'Life of Pi' is one of the quintessential Hollywood winter blockbusters in the offering, let the fact be stated that it isn't one. In fact it is one of those cross over films meant for the niche markets where you can't really be expecting the kind of audience who throng every major film that is offered across the globe.
What catches your attention though, and that too in not a very good way, is the way the film has been shot. It is clear that there are two different palates being used. While the first 30-40 minutes, when the film is largely set in the South part of India, the whole texture as well, shot taking, editing pattern as well as sound design is pretty much in the mode that Hindi New Age cinema during the late 70s and early 80s followed. In fact it is rather surprising because one would have expected director Ang Lee to have brought in his own take on affairs while filming in India with Indian characters.
However what you see is a stereotypical beginning with elephant designs forming an integral part of the very opening sequence of the film. Really, India being represented by elephants and snake charmers is a stereotype that one had always believed was left out at least 20 years back. However it's emergence all over again, and that too in a reputed production, is hardly encouraging.
Nevertheless, it is Irrfan Khan's charm and his impeccable acting skills that save the day as you seep into the world that he is attempting to take the audience into. Yes, it does take a lot of time though. One would have expected his younger version, Suraj Sharma, to emerge on the scene soon and the ship wreck saga to begin soon after. However there is this whole back story that just goes on and on with Pi's younger days being explained. So there are tigers and Indian classical dance and explanations of 'mudras' and debates around religion and discussions around faith with a bit of 'karma' being thrown in.
Frankly, it seems like yet another exercise to showcase India for it's rich cultural, traditional and religion faith which seems rather totally tangential to the expectations setting that was created for 'Life of Pi' till date. The promos indicated a different film and that begins only after the ship wreck happens. Pi is stranded on a life boat with a tiger, zebra, hyena and an orangutan. Ultimately only Pi and tiger remain and the film turns out to be their story.
Even at this point one can't help but draw a parallel with Tom Hanks' 'Cast Away'. Needless to say, latter was a more compelling piece of affair. Still, if one had to leave the comparison factor aside, there are some moments of genuine entertainment that come in. Pi's attempts to safeguard his own life and then further form a bond with the tiger, their brush with death when yet another storm arrives, the exhilaration at seeing the food reserves, the whole dealing with hopelessness and faith, the frequent changes in emotional, physical and mental state - there are a few engaging things that keep the drama going.
Meanwhile, the quintessential 'Ang Lee visual treatment' is thrown in for good measure as well (and hence justifying the 3D tag, albeit for a mere 7-8 minutes in the course of this 120 minutes long film). The sea, the sky, the flying fishes, the moonlight night, the island - there are certain elements about 'Life of Pi' that do give Ang Lee and opportunity to go beyond the human drama as well and set his eyes on some breathtaking visuals.
However that is only for a very short duration and just when one had expected that the drama would peak, the film nosedives, and how, towards the concluding portions. While it is apparent that Pi would be eventually rescued (how else would he live to tell the tale as Irrfan Khan?), the very point in the film where he is lying on a hospital bed and is interviewed by the officials till the end credits start rolling is a painful exercise for a viewer. Yes, for a discerning one this may have something to munch upon but for a larger audience, this is sheer indulgence as Pi gets into a monologue detailing his story.
In the end, one is left with more questions than answers. However the fact that the film had ended on a hardly euphoric note only made one ignore these questions and move on to doing something else. Frankly, Ang Lee has done better and the only fact that Indians particularly can rejoice is that a filmmaker of his repute and standing has actually devised an entire film around Indian characters and given it a huge international release, hence resulting in greater visibility as well.
One just wishes the elephant could have been avoided though!