Director Ang Lee said he chose Suraj Sharma because he wanted someone "authentic". Photo: Zaki Jufri
Was it fate or sheer talent that made Suraj Sharma stand out from thousands of other hopefuls auditioning for the lead role in Ang Lee’s latest film ‘Life of Pi’? Perhaps it was a bit of both that led the then 17-year-old to be picked from more than 3,000 boys from the US, India, UK and Canada to play the role of Pi Patel—as he wasn’t even planning on trying out for the role.
“I didn't really want to act but it just happened,” Sharma told inSing.com. “The auditions happened back home in Delhi and the casting director was my brother's school theatre teacher. I went for the auditions with my brother to give him moral support and was also asked to audition. They called me back after that.”
That serendipitous event led the neophyte actor with zero experience to helm one of the most ambitious films ever, not to mention one of the most demanding—physically and mentally—for any actor, seasoned or otherwise.
Perhaps the biggest test for Sharma was to convincingly act opposite CG animals –emote in front of things that weren’t there—and take the audience on Pi’s spiritual journey. How did Sharma train for this? At Ang Lee’s acting school. For 10 months, the teenager went to a boot-camp of sorts, learning the tricks of the trade—and embarked on a steep learning curve.
Dressed in a navy sweater, blue plaid shirt and khakis, the chirpy 19-year-old looked far removed from the days where he was dressed mostly in rags for most of film’s production. “For more than three months, I trained—I did yoga, learnt sea-survival skills and philosophy … and Dao Yan (Ang Lee) taught me how to act by watching movies from the ’60s and ’70s; we even did plays,” Sharma said.
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“Then, I didn’t really know what Pi was. Pi is a really complex character. So it’s hard to tell what part of yourself you could make Pi-like. On hindsight, I realized that Dao Yan was putting little pieces of Pi inside me during training. By the time we started shooting, I felt that there was something inside me that was Pi-like,” he shared.
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Sharma's co-star for most of the movie was a Bengal tiger. Although real tigers were used in some scenes (they had four on set), the scenes where Sharma had to be opposite Richard Parker were done using CGI. Finding the necessary emotions to convey during shooting proved to be quite a challenge for the young actor.
Suraj Sharma with Ang Lee at the film's preview in Taipei
“Yes I had to use my imagination a lot but after a while everything seemed real. We had four tigers on set as reference and I would watch them every day—how they reacted to water, their environment and how they moved. It was easy to construct the tigers in my head eventually and react to something that wasn’t there,” he recalled.
“Listening is also as important as using my imagination. Dao Yan would explain scenes really in-depth and all I had to do was listen and react. When I needed to be sad, Dao Yan told me to think of the saddest moment in my life. Feeling what I saw was just as important as seeing what before me,” Sharma added.
Possibly the most moving scene throughout the movie was when Pi and Richard Parker faced a storm worse than any they’ve seen. The tiger which Pi is so afraid of cowers in fear of the lightning and the monstrous waves while Pi is exalted at the experience. This is where Pi comes face to face with his view of God and his inner animal. “I’ve lost everything,” Pi shouts to the heavens. “I surrender! What more do you want,” he rails. Through Sharma, we can feel Pi’s inner struggle, his awe of Mother Nature and fear of its unintended consequence.
“Trying to be Pi in the movie did to some extent make me more spiritual. I believe there is a need for human beings to have faith as it gives them something to fall back on. It’s kind of like a back to rest on; you always feel that there is someone or something pushing you on or keeping you going in life,” Sharma said.
Ang Lee has much praise for the teenager who critics say have put on the performance of his life. With Lee’s masterful direction and his young star’s moving performance, many think that ‘Life of Pi’ which opens on 29 November here is a contender for next year’s awards.
“I guess we got lucky with him (Sharma). He is a very reliable actor. The movie is really about him, a 16 year-old boy,” the director shared, “If you watch the movie, you will discover that he is very captivating. You will start worrying for him without needing him to do anything on screen and you will be drawn in to continue watching. Another thing is his talent. He will be stuck in the character once you put him to it. He will start to believe whatever you tell him.
“When young talents try to please you, it’s heartbreaking; it’s genuine. You can harness that innocence for your movie. The audience will believe their performance while a seasoned actor has to act to convey that innocence,” Lee added.