Last updateTue, 17 Mar 2015 2pm

"A little bit of Pi will remain with me forever": Suraj Sharma

New Delhi-born ‘Life of Pi’ star Suraj Sharma says making the film has been a life affirming experience that has left him hopeful and optimistic.

Speaking to The UKAsian prior the film’s release in the UK, Sharma, 19, said he understands the need for belief in peoples’ lives despite never being religious.

“I think a little bit of Pi has remained in me and will be with me for the rest of my life.

“I love Pi’s sense of hope and curiosity and openness about things.  I understand that there are different ways of explaining the same thing, the need for people to hope and their need for purity and belief.  

“I understand how and why one would use belief to lessen one’s troubles; use it as something to rely on in times of struggle.  

“I believe there is a God.”

That belief is but one of the many and varied and wonderful changes the 19-year-old has experienced in two short years after being chosen to play the lead role of Piscine ‘Pi’ Molitor Patel in Ang Lee’s $100 million dollar adaptation of Yann Martell’s Booker-prize winning novel of the same name.

Once described by President Barack Obama as an ‘elegant proof of God’, Martell’s novel was long thought to be unfilmable, particularly the 227-day voyage of spiritual discovery taken by Pi after the ship carrying his family and their menagerie of zoo animals sinks in the middle of the Pacific.

Pi is the sole human survivor alongside a ferocious Bengal Tiger, charmingly named ‘Richard Parker’; Pi’s struggle against nature and his attempts to tame the Tiger are the central story of the book.

Ang Lee’s film adaptation however, is a triumph; his use of 3D and CGI is astonishing and enhances one of the most compelling stories of our times.

Another key to the film’s success is Sharma, who does a ‘Tom Hanks in Cast Away’ and carries the story with aplomb.  

It’s an extraordinary achievement for the son of a Software engineer father and economist mother with no acting experience – “I once played a tree in a school play!” - who had gone for the Life of Pi auditions because of a promise of a free sandwich.

Free meal or not, Sharma was chosen out of more than 3000 hopefuls and went on to play a role that, whilst enlightening him no end, was also emotionally and physically draining.  

After undergoing intensive acting training from Ang Lee himself, Sharma spent vast swathes of the film standing against a green screen at a warehouse in Taiwan; the dauntingly expansive Pacific Ocean and ‘Richard Parker’ added in digitally in post-production.

The meticulous Lee also got Sharma to listen to religious chanting and choral music to get into Pi’s polytheistic zone.  

The actor went on a strict fish-based diet to lose 20% of his weight with yoga and meditation added to help Sharma embody his character’s equanimity.  

Lee has become a father figure after the director finally gave Sharma his seal of approval following the third round of auditions.  

“He was a real inspiration for me.  I come from a very modest background and I always thought filmmakers were full of big attitudes.  But then you meet Ang and you’re just blown away by how simple and down to earth and soft-spoken he is.  I’m thankful to have realized at this early stage of my career that fame and money doesn’t need to change who you are.”

That grounding will be helpful for Sharma’s life has been utterly transformed since the movie’s release at the New York Film Festival earlier this year.

A boy who had previously never ventured beyond his South Delhi neighborhood has been toasted around the world, attending film festivals, press screenings and promotional events from Taiwan to Dubai to London to New York.

As the accolades for the film and his performance have come in, his itinerary and fame have merely been added to.

It’s been an amazing journey.  Before you begin you have these emotions and you start creating these ideas about how things will happen but all that’s gone out the window.  For instance, all the stuff that you don’t get to talk about as a 19-year-old in Delhi, things like spirituality and God, you get to talk about to people from all around the world.  It’s been amazing.  It’s like therapy!”


Above all however, the story of ‘Pi’ and his multitude of Gods, has brought about a fundamental change in the young man who had wanted to do Economics in University but has resolved to study philosophy instead.


“I haven’t come across too many books that make you feel so troubled.  In good way of course.  Troubled to the extent that you begin to question a lot of things that you take for granted.


“Growing up I was never very religious or never really formed any set of beliefs.  The most religious thing I would have done was to join my mother in her Pooja occasionally.    Like most people I had a very flippant attitude towards religion.  But I’m a lot more accepting of religious sentiment now.  I’m hopeful because I understand why religion offers hope to people.  


“I think that’s the great thing about the movie.  It helps you believe without shoving it down your throat.”


The film has also instilled in Sharma an urge to tell beautiful stories like ‘Life of Pi’.


“I had wanted to follow in my mother’s footsteps and study economics.  The film has switched that course to philosophy”, says the Delhi University undergrad.


“I don’t know if I want to act but I do want to end up in the film industry.  I want to make magic.”


‘Life of Pi’ is in cinemas across the UK December 20th.



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