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'Life Of Pi' Life-Changing For Young Star

Pi Patel, played by Suraj Sharma, begins forging a connection with the fierce Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.
Courtesy of 20th Century Fox
Pi Patel, played by Suraj Sharma, begins forging a connection with the fierce Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.

The new film Life of Pi tells the story of a teenage Indian boy who survives a shipwreck, only to find himself in another ordeal: stranded on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger. The movie is based on the best-selling novel of the same name, and is being mentioned as an Oscar contender by many critics.

Pi is the son of zookeepers from India. When the family sells their zoo, they take the animals with them aboard a ship bound for Canada, where they plan to start a new life. But after a terrible storm sinks the ship, Pi is the sole human survivor. He barely scrambles onto a lifeboat with a tiger and other animals. There are many moments when Pi is in danger of losing his life — and his mind.

An Accidental Star

Thousands of young men from India auditioned for the lead role, and Sharma won it without any acting experience; as a matter of fact, he won it without really trying. In an interview with Tell Me More host Michel Martin, Sharma says that he went to the audition to support his brother, not to audition himself.

"The casting director in my city was also my brother's drama theater teacher, and he knew my family. I was sitting on the couch waiting for my brother to get done, and he comes up to me and he said, 'You know what, Suraj? You're like a teenage Indian boy. You should try as well.' And I said, 'Fine, yeah. I might as well.' And I did."

Sink Or Swim

Critics say that the film's shipwreck scene rivals the spectacle and terror of the 1997 blockbuster Titanic. "We were on this huge multiton vessel on this huge metallic, like mechanical hand, being thrown around," says Sharma. "Yeah, it was pretty scary."

Surviving the scene could have been a challenge for Sharma — as well as his character — because before the movie, he'd never learned to swim. "I had never been in the ocean before that either," he says. "The max I had ever done was, you know, get my feet into the surf right at the end of the, you know, at the beach."

Eye Of The Tiger

Most of the film shows Pi trapped on a lifeboat with a vicious tiger named Richard Parker. Sharma was never in the boat with a real tiger — special effects were used to create that illusion. But there were four real tigers used for the production, so Sharma spent hours and hours watching the animals being trained to ensure that his fear would look genuine.

Richard Parker reacts to a school of flying fish.
/ Courtesy of 20th Century Fox
Courtesy of 20th Century Fox
Richard Parker reacts to a school of flying fish.

"Sometimes you look at them and you think, 'Aww that's just a big furry kitty cat.' Then there are other times when you just look at them and you realize these guys are powerful, strong, like really unpredictable creatures."

Eventually, Sharma says, his time watching tigers paid off, and his character's fear on the boat became real for him. "Richard Parker was there, you know. In my head, he just was on the boat. I didn't have to do much to imagine him there."

'Not The Most Disciplined Kid'

Director Ang Lee has raved about Sharma's performance and natural gifts as an actor. But the Oscar-winning filmmaker had some doubts about him at first, saying recently that Sharma was "not the most disciplined kid in India." Sharma admits that he was a bit of a troublemaker in the early days on set, especially after he found a scooter.

"When everybody was working and, you know, they were hard at work and extremely busy, I didn't have anything to do, so I used to go around on this little scooter and basically mess with people. So I was quite a nuisance!"

A Life-Changing Experience

The young actor says he spent 10 months doing things he never did before — things he never imagined he could do. He said he never worked so hard — or wanted to work so hard in his life — and he had never been exposed to so many amazing people.

"The intensity of a set is incredible, you know. And imagine things like this: You're coming from a little house, and you're in Taiwan. You don't know what's happening. And you go from the first day to the production office and they tell you, 'Oh, yeah, we took over an airport. And now that's our office. And the terminals are production thingy — production office. And we're gonna cut up the runway and build a tank.' It's just — it's really alien! You just don't imagine things like that! Just learning so much, you just get — your eyes get open to something," he says.

Sharma is attending college and hopes to continue on to film school. He says he might act or direct; he's not sure yet, but he just wants to tell stories.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.