Life of a Pi Nawabi
By Steve Herte
Life of Pi - 3D (Fox 2000 Pictures/Haishang Films, 2012) – Director: Ang Lee. Starring Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Tabu, Adil Hussain, and Ayush Tandon.
Director Ang Lee once again proves his powers as a force of nature when it comes to modern film. Life of Pi is an adventure fantasy that takes the audience through the travails of being adrift at sea with a Bengal tiger, a zebra with a broken leg, an orangutan and a hyena – or was it four desperate people trying to survive a shipwreck – and the spiritual moments that can insinuate themselves into the situation so that the line blurs between reality and fantasy.
The story begins when Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan) is visited by his good friend (Rafe Spall), who wants to write the book about his survival of the wreck of the Japanese cargo ship in the Pacific Ocean. The tale begins in Pondicherry, India, when a second son is born to Santosh and Gita Patel (Adil Hussain and Tabu). Santosh is a man who loves swimming pools (and is curiously adapted to swimming from birth). He is encouraged to experience the crystal waters of a swimming pool in France and is so impressed that he names his son “Piscine,” the French word for a swimming pool.
Five-year-old Pi (Gautam Belur) goes through multiple embarrassments from his schoolmates and teachers because of the sound of his name (easily pronounced “pissing”). Now 11 and played by Ayush Tandon, he abbreviates his name to Pi (as in the mathematical non-repeating decimal) and goes to great lengths to gain respect. That includes working out the decimal of pi to hundreds of places, thus filling several blackboards to cheers from his schoolmates.
Pi, though born into the Hindu faith, becomes interested in other religions. On a dare from his older brother Ravi (Mohd Abbas Kaleeli), he drinks the holy water from a font in the local Catholic Church and meets the pastor (Andrea DiStefano), who proffers a glass of water and discusses the mysteries of Catholicism with him. Next he visits a mosque and takes up Muslim ways as well as dabbling in the Kabbalah. As he puts it, “There are 3,000 gods in Hinduism. It’s impossible not to meet up with a few of them, and I wanted to meet Jesus and Allah.”
His family owns a zoo in Pondicherry and life seems great until the finances outweigh the income from ticket sales and Pi’s father decides to move the family and the zoo animals to Canada by boat. So like a Noah’s Ark they sail away - just, coincidentally when Pi (now played by Suraj Sharma) has met Anandi (Shravanthi Sainath), the possible love of his life - on the long journey across the ocean.
Inevitably, a devastating storm happens in transit and Pi goes up from the sleeping quarters below decks to the topmost deck to see the lightning, though he can barely stand on the pitching ship decks. Alarms begin to sound and red lights flash and he knows something bad has happened. So he runs down to where his family would be, but it’s already flooded and he’s passed by a zebra swimming for its life. He returns to the deck and the lifeboats are being lowered. A man (maybe his father) tosses him into one to help with the pulleys but the zebra has its own idea. It leaps into the boat causing the pulleys to give way and the boat drops to the ocean below.
Thus starts the great adventure. After witnessing the sinking of the ship, Pi must learn how to survive in a lifeboat with a zebra that broke a leg leaping into the boat, an orangutan named “Orange Juice” who floats over on a raft of bananas, a hyena that emerges from under the tarp on the bow and tries repeatedly to eat the zebra and lastly, “Richard Parker” the Bengal tiger who also emerges from the tarp (one has to wonder what he and the hyena were doing under there). Eventually, the hyena kills both the zebra and the orangutan and the tiger kills the hyena. Pi builds a raft out of oars and flotation devices connected to the boat by a rope and the odd travel companions have to survive together while safely apart.
Pi learns many things from the survival booklet that is stowed on the lifeboat, including strangely enough, how to tame a dangerous wild animal. The computer graphically produced tiger is so well done that the audience believes it is interacting with Pi from its magical appearance until the end of the film and the 3D effects accent this incredible reality. Many strange and surreal scenes occur during the weeks aboard the lifeboat/raft combination. There is a flock of flying fish followed by a leaping tuna (Pi wins the tuna from the tiger), a night scene with a galaxy of glowing organisms lighting up the water followed by the breaching of an enormous humpback whale, a landing on a carnivorous island populated by flocks of thousands of meerkats (more than there is in the whole of Africa) and another huge ocean storm that leaves both Pi and the tiger near death. The boat grounds on the sands of Mexico, the tiger alights on the sand and heads into the jungle without looking back and Pi is rescued while crying hysterically for his lost shipmate.
Later, investigators (James Saito and Jun Naito) from the Japanese company insuring the cargo ship question Pi about his survival, trying to determine how the ship sank. They will not accept his fantastic tale with the tiger, so he makes up a completely different story about four human survivors (including his mother), who eventually kill each other until he is the only one left. The investigators are not satisfied but they leave him alone.
Back in the present, the writer agrees that he prefers the tiger story and meets Pi’s new wife and sons and a happy ending is achieved. Life of Pi is a deeply spiritual movie asking questions about many religions and the nature of God, his relationship with man and the elements. Sharma’s acting is superb and his commitment to the role is commendable, considering he had to learn how to swim to perform it, build his bodily strength up and then lose weight to make his part believable. The photography and special effects are dazzlingly beautiful. The 3D is not intrusive or contrived, with only a hummingbird hovers over the audience in the beginning. It’s one of those movies that beg repeat viewings to comprehend all the life lessons it teaches and will be a major contender in the next Academy Awards ceremony.
Rating: 5 out of 5 Martini glasses.
Rating: 5 out of 5 Martini glasses.
115 Lexington Avenue (26th/27th), New York City
The glassed-in corner property on 27th Street and Lexington Avenue with its sleek white lettering on charcoal gray banner across the top greets you to an adventure in Indian cuisine. In this section of Manhattan there are several Indian restaurants to choose from, being an enclave, as well as Thai and Afghan. Chote Nawab looks bigger on the outside than it is inside because the tables are larger than one would expect. I learned this when I was led to a table just past the good-sized bar and next to the entrance to the kitchen, which when disengaged from the adjacent table where a couple were seated proved to be an obstacle for the servers as well as patrons trying to get to and from the back six tables. Needless to say I gradually slid it back into position (especially when my waiter bumped it hard enough to nearly topple my cocktail).
Speaking of cocktails, the list at Chote Nawab is intriguing and I chose a drink called Kamasutra – gin, vodka and rum with fresh strawberries and mango – a delicious (and pretty) beginning garnished with a slice of lime. While sipping my drink and viewing the menu I noticed the unusual décor in the rear of the restaurant. The booths appeared to be separated by chains of bluish-gray hoops and circles while garish red, yellow and blue ceramic bowls hung on the wall over them. Literally translated the name means “Little Prince” and Chef Shiva Natarajan is referring to the Nawabs of Lucknow, India, whose kitchens were known for their kebabs.
The menu has Shuruvat (appetizers) both meat and vegetable, kebabs, Chicken, Seafood, Lamb/Goat, Vegetable, and Biryani (rice) main courses as well as Rotiyan (breads), sides, desserts and drinks. Knowing about the special way the kebabs are prepared I ordered the Kebab Peshkash, a smaller selection (it can be a main course) of seven kebabs: Chicken (four ways) Methi Malai (in a fenugreek marinade), Haryali (in a green masala), Malai Tikka (in a creamy marinade and grilled) and Nawabi Chicken Tikka, Kakori Kebab (ground lamb rolls with house blend spices), Jhinga Malai Kebab (Shrimp in creamy marinade and grilled) and lastly Adrak Ke Panje (a lamb chop spiced and grilled). They were accompanied by ramekins of garlic raita and mint chutney. All were tender and very flavorful, not too spicy and not too dry. I was hard pressed to decide which I liked better (I gravitate to the Kakori Kebabs) but I finished them all.
While enjoying the appetizer, my waiter brought the wine, a delightful Argentinean Malbec from Trumpeter vineyards – a full bodied wine able to stand up to the Indian spices. The choice of wines is limited, but sure to please anyone’s tastes and very affordable. The thin flat crisp breads delivered to the table sided with onion chutney, a tomato chutney and a tamarind chutney provided the perfect palate cleanser before the main course.
Chote Nawab offers several unique main courses, but the one that attracted me was the Kori Gassi – a beautiful pumpkin-colored chicken curry from Mangalore with homemade spices. My waiter asked me how I would like it, mild, medium or spicy. I asked him to have it made the way it is supposed to be made, the way a Mangalorean would expect it to be made. It was wonderful and surprisingly not too spicy. With the basmati rice and Peshwari Nan (a Pakistani bread filled with fruits and nuts), it was transporting.
I hope all of my Indian friends will forgive me, but when a dessert selection is small I will always (and did) choose Gulab Jamun (malted milk balls in honey/rose-water sauce), even though I know it to be a common street food in India. Also, after 125 Indian restaurants, nothing finishes a big meal like Masala Chai (spiced tea), which I ordered again. Chote Nawab is one of the most diverse Indian restaurants I have been to because it introduces dishes I have not tried. Therefore, a return trip is definitely in the future.