Suraj Sharma is pretty much your average student. He’s polite, well-spoken and majoring in philosophy at college this year. He also just starred in the new epic 3-D film by Ang Lee and counts the venerated director as a close friend who is legitimately his guru (there was a ceremony and everything). Sharma had never acted before he took the title role in “Life of Pi” — he was selected out of thousands of nonprofessional actors auditioning for the part. Playing a young man adrift at sea, Sharma lost weight, gained weight and learned to fish. Along the way, he tells us, the film changed him into the man he is today.
What path you were on before this movie happened and where do you see things going now?
Before the movie I didn’t really know what to do. I was in school and I was, I would say, lost. … Luckily enough, [director Ang Lee] picked me up, took me to Taiwan. Over there, I changed as a person. I realized more about myself, more about everything. Working with Ang changes you, I guess. Before “Pi” I was really a bad student. I didn’t do very well in school at all, ever, and I came back and I changed in a million ways. … I did surprisingly well in school. I didn’t even know how. Suddenly I was getting, like, 94 percent. I decided now in college I’m doing philosophy. Things really changed.
Did the movie inspire you to choose philosophy?
Oh yeah. I think Ang and Pi got to me. Lying on that board and talking to Ang, you kind of start thinking on those lines, you start thinking about things, because Pi himself is this kid who asks questions like, “What is life?” He is into philosophy of his own kind and Ang himself has a really complex philosophy, which comes through when you talk to him. You kind of start thinking along those lines. Eventually I want to be a filmmaker, so I guess philosophy will help me in that way.
Some actors in your position might say forget school and do acting full-time.
I don’t know about the acting. I don’t know whether I want to act professionally much. It’s daunting, it’s scary and it’s different. I want to be a filmmaker. I want to tell stories. … I love acting now and the life is hard. I don’t know if I’m equipped for it, but I’d like being on-set. I think that’s the most inspiring part of movies — just being on-set. The intensity with which everybody works, 300 people just working, working, working for something, maybe even three seconds long, different skills, different ideas, different backgrounds — everything just comes together and you make something and you make someone’s imagination come to life.
I read that your mother had a ritual performed in order for Ang to become your guru.
Basically my mum was kind of hesitant about the whole thing. She was scared it was a risky decision. I was scared, too. In India the guru is a really important person. You kind of give yourself to them. … so I kind of asked him to be my guru and I did pranama, which is basically you kind of submit yourself. He accepted me as his student and he took it very seriously. It’s nice to see other people take things that are important to you seriously. He’s an amazing and really important person. Seeing him care for you like that is really humbling.
Acting is hard normally — but then you also had to gain weight, lose weight, learn how to swim, learn how to fish. Which one of those tasks was the most challenging?
I think it was all just one, it came as one big package. I had to learn how to swim. I had to learn all these sea skills, do yoga, meditate, work out, gain weight, lose weight. I had to read books, learn how to act. There were a million things to do. I can’t say one was harder than the other, it just all used to happen every day. So it was a big challenge just being there. All I wanted to do was keep Ang happy, because he had put so much trust into me. Fox and the crew, everybody was trusting someone who had no idea what they were doing.
Review: It’s a nearly perfect ‘Pi’
‘Life of Pi’
Director: Ang Lee
Cast: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Rafe Spall
Based on the book by Yann Martel, the story follows Pi Patel, who finds himself literally adrift in the Pacific Ocean after a boat carrying his family and all of the animals that once lived in their zoo capsizes. Left at sea with no one but a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan and a tiger named Richard Parker, Pi must do whatever it takes to keep himself alive and keep the Mr. Parker from getting hungry.
The 3-D special effects in the film are nothing short of dazzling. It’s a feast for the eyes to be sure, even when the story’s solitary nature leaves us wanting for a little more plot. One can easily begin to feel as bored as Pi. But the love and dedication director Ang Lee put into the film shows and the result is a well-rounded film that’s a treat on many levels. metro/hp