x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Suraj Sharma, the Life of Pi and a sandwich

Suraj Sharma owes his role in Life of Pi to the promise of a sandwich from his brother.

The only thing more unlikely than a movie about a boy adrift on a ship with a Bengal tiger is the tale of the film's star.

The teenager Suraj Sharma went along with his actor brother to Delhi for an audition of Life of Pi purely as a favour, motivated by the promise of a free meal.

"He said: 'Come with me because I don't want to go alone,'" said Sharma before the film premiered at the New York Film Festival in September. "I said: 'Fine, as long as you buy me a sandwich afterwards.' That sandwich got me Pi."

For a film about the wonder of faith, Sharma's experience is one that stretches belief. Despite no prior acting experience or ambition, he managed to separate himself from 3,000 applicants and emerged through four rounds of auditions as the star in one of the most anticipated movies of the year.

For Life of Pi to work, Sharma - who is now 19 and was 17 when filming started - had to succeed. And many think the film, which opens the Dubai International Film Festival tonight and is scheduled to be released in UAE cinemas later this month, not only works but is a legitimate Oscar contender - a 3-D magic act from the director Ang Lee that translates Yann Martel's 2001 best-selling novel into a colourful cinematic production.

In it, Sharma plays Pi Patel, who as a child, precociously combines Christianity, Buddhism and Islam into his own blend of religion. When his family is uprooted to Canada, the ship taking Pi, his family and many zoo animals, sinks in a storm, leaving Pi alone and clinging to life in a boat.

Making the film meant working with one of the most revered film directors; it meant spending months shooting in India and Taiwan, where a giant water tank was built for the scenes at sea; and it meant learning not only how to act, but also how to swim.

"I can't put it in words," says Sharma, a bright and earnest boy who humbly recognises his good fortune. "It's too much. It was emotionally and spiritually and physically exhausting. I would never be able to tell people what I went through, exactly, but hopefully it will come through in some ways."

It was a journey Sharma's parents, both of whom are (fittingly) mathematicians, were reluctant about as it would mean missing a year of school. Lee argued that a year spent working on Life of Pi would be more rewarding than a year of school. Sharma's mother made Lee her son's guru - a new role for the director.

"I couldn't even tell a joke in front of him. I had to behave," says Lee. "I had to look after him. Normally when I work with actors, they move on and I move on. I can pretty much say he started at the top - getting this kind of reception and making a movie. So I want to make sure he's grounded and still getting his education - not only in school but in life. He should be OK if he doesn't get crushed by what's coming.

"He's a good boy," adds Lee. "It seems like he can take it."

In Life of Pi,there's nowhere for a young actor to hide. For a long stretch of the film, Pi is alone in the boat with only the tiger for company, which was digitally added. Sharma had the extra pressure of acting extensively in front of a blue screen, with little to go on other than Lee's directions.

"Honestly, I still feel like I don't know how to act," says Sharma. "It was just him. I was just an instrument. He has this thing - suppose you're really nervous and stressed out and going crazy - he'll look you in the eye in a particular manner and no matter who it is, you just go: whoosh! He's like a Zen master or something. He makes you so calm that you just let him mould you into whatever he wants to mould you into."

Sharma is now in his first year at Delhi University where he is studying philosophy.

"I'm pretty sure I want to end up in the film industry," he says. "I don't know if I want to act or not, but I do want to be part of making magic."

* AP


For more on the Dubai International Film Festival 2012, visit www.thenational.ae/DIFF2012