Sharma is in town for Dubai International Film Festival. It’s 9am when he meets us, the first in a long list of media appearances that culminates with the red-carpet premiere of the festival-opening film, followed by an exclusive black-tie opening party that will keep the star on his feet until the early hours.
Such a hectic schedule is quite a change for the New Delhi teenager, who says he left school feeling ‘lost’ and directionless. Before Pi, Sharma had never acted before; he’d never even left his home country. Now he’s the frontman of a meticulously-crafted 3D blockbuster from Hollywood heavyweight Ang Lee. It has a reported budget of more than Dhs400 million, and critics are comparing it favourably to Avatar.
The word ‘saved’ is fitting for this movie, an adaption of Yann Martell’s fantastical Booker Prize-winning novel about the eponymous hero. Named ‘Piscine’ after the French word for swimming pool, the young boy is bullied as a child until he re-invents himself as Pi, in tribute to the mathematical Greek term. Growing up the son of a zoo keeper in French India in the mid-’70s, financial hardships cause Pi’s family to plan their emigration to North America, where they’ll get a better price for the zoo’s animals. However, when a storm sinks the vessel, young Pi finds himself adrift on a lifeboat with just a Bengal tiger, albeit one amusingly named Richard Parker, for company. The majority of the film takes places in this theatre-like setting; Sharma is in nearly every scene, but there are no other actors present, beside the tiger, which regularly comes within a hair’s breadth of maiming its fellow passenger.
So we were a little disappointed when Sharma told us he’d never been anywhere near the tiger, itself a CGI creation based on motion capture of four real animals. Meanwhile, the film’s glittering horizons were also dropped in: the boat scenes were shot in front of a blue screen, the rest created thrrough painstaking computer wizardry. One thing that wasn’t faked, however, was the water; inconvenient, perhaps, that Sharma never learned to swim before joining the movie. ‘Acting? Never done it before. Swimming? Never done it before. Never seen the ocean. Never seen boats, or film sets, or any of that. It was my first time out of the country. It was a lot of change.’
View Life of Pi review
View director Ang Lee interview
Over a series of tense encounters, Pi and Parker slowly learn to cohabit in the same space, drifting for 223 days before being washed up in Mexico, where the tiger vanishes and is never seen again. As any of the book’s millions of fans – Barack Obama included – will know, the magical scenario can be interpreted as a metaphor. In Sharma’s eyes, did Pi ‘tame the tiger’ of his psyche, or was he really accompanied by a ravenous carnivore throughout the trip?
‘I can’t tell you that!’ he exclaims. ‘I believe both stories are true. Think of it like this: there are many ways of looking at life, many ways of looking at things. You can have stories that explain things, you can have ideas and rules and concepts that build on an idea you have. But what truly is the truth is up to you.’
Sharma’s meditative approach feels inspired by the man who mentored him: Ang Lee, the ‘zen-like’ master director of Sense and Sensibility (1995), Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), and Brokeback Mountain (2005), for which he became the first person of Asian descent to earn an Oscar for Best Director. ‘He never tells you exactly what you should feel – he makes you feel it,’ says Sharma. ‘He’ll create an atmosphere around you. He’ll tell you an action – you have to pick this up, for example – then he’ll tell you what’s going on in your mind, but he never tells you what you have to show. And the way he talks to you, the way he looks at you, that’s what makes it real. You walk in, you don’t have any emotions as such, and he fills you up somehow.’
Before our time is up, we can’t help observing that shy, retiring Sharma spends the bulk of the movie topless, while the iconic promotional image from publicity material across the globe features him standing boldly in just a pair of trousers. Does it bother him to know that millions, if not billions, of people are looking at him half naked?
‘Nah,’ he replies bluntly, an edge of movie-star confidence finally emerging. ‘Initially I was very self-conscious, but I spent so much time topless, I don’t really care. I never really realised that, to be honest, and now I think about it, ha, it’s okay.’
He must be ready for the fan mail, we venture. ‘Nah, I don’t think so. Richard Parker [is], maybe.’ And we both dissolve into laughter.