Life of Pi: A Hollywood Movie about an Interfaith Journey?

I was lucky enough to be asked by the organization I work for, Interfaith Alliance to organize an advanced screening of the Life of Pi directed by Ang Lee. Twentieth Century Fox had reached out to Interfaith Alliance as they felt the movie and the book addressed interfaith elements, hence, we were asked to promote the movie together in Washington DC, before it comes out in the movie theaters on Wednesday, Nov 21st.

The book by Yann Martel, is an epic journey of a boy, Pi who becomes lost at sea alone with only a man-eating tiger to keep him company on the life boat. It’s not just a movie about survival, growth, and loss, but also about faith. The movie was stunning; visually it lifted the mystical and dazzling aspects of a faith journey through struggle, grief and healing. The movie in my opinion subtly takes a look at getting closer to god, but also about identifying as a multi-faith person.

My favorite scenes of the book were when Pi shortens his name from Piscine Molitor Patel (he was named after a French swimming pool) after having enough of being picked on for his name. He goes into an explanation at the beginning of every classroom when teachers are taking attendance of why his name is Pi. The movie builds on the symbolism of him choosing the logical/rational mathematical constant of Pi (the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter) when we get to see his exploration of three faiths, Catholicism, Hinduism, and Islam. The movie captured this perfectly, with the students running after Pi from class to class as he desperately appeals to be known by Pi, so everyone would stop calling him pissing Piscine.

Another one of my favorite scenes in the book was when Pi discussed being introduced to interfaith dialogue, which wasn’t included in the movie. In this part of the book Pi gets cornered by three religious leaders of the temples he’s been visiting while on a walk with his family. All three are aghast when they realize he’s been devotional to all three religions and urge him to choose one. His parents of course had no idea that he was exploring religion:

“The pandit spoke first, ‘Mr. Patel, Piscine’s piety is admirable. In these troubled times it’s good to see a boy so keen on God. We all agree on that.’ The imam and the priest nodded. ‘But he can’t be a Hindu, a Christian and a Muslim. It’s impossible. He must choose.’ ‘I don’t think it’s a crime, but I suppose you’re right,’ Father replied.” The three murmured agreement and looked heavenward, as did Father, whence they felt the decision must come. Mother looked at me.

A silence fell heavily on my shoulders. ‘Hmmm, Piscine’ Mother nudged me. ‘How do you feel about the question?’

‘Bapu Gandhi said, ‘All religions are true.’ I just want to love God,’ I blurted out, and looked down, red in the face. My embarrassment was contagious. No one said anything. It happened that we were not far from the statue of Gandhi on the esplanade. Stick in hand, an impish smile on his lips, a twinkle in his eyes, the Mahatma walked. I fancy that he heard our conversation, but that he paid even greater attention to my heart. Father cleared his throat and said in a half-voice, ‘I suppose that’s what we’re all trying to do — love God.’

I thought it very funny that he should say that, he who hadn’t stopped into a temple with a serious matter since I had had the faculty of memory. But it seemed to do the trick. You can’t reprimand a boy for wanting to love God. The three wise men pulled away with stiff, grudging smiles on their faces.

Father looked at me for a second, as if to speak, then thought better, said, ‘Ice cream, anyone?’ headed for the closest ice-cream wallah before we could answer. Mother gazed at me a little longer, with an expression that was both tender and perplexed.

That was my introduction to interfaith dialogue. Father bought three ice cream sandwiches. We ate them in unusual silence as we continued our Sunday walk. – Life of Pi, Yann Martel

I felt this was one of the more important aspects of the book that should have been included in the movie especially at a time when people are becoming more divided along religious and political lines, not only in the U.S. but also all over the world. Obviously Ang Lee was trying to stay somewhat mainstream by introducing some faith components subtly with the hopes to appeal to a more mainstream/secular audience. There are worries about how it will do in the theaters on Wednesday. Plus, the movie had contracted two other directors before Lee came on board, hence, indicating the challenging nature of translating this story and its meaning to the big screen.

One interesting interfaith component of the movie and symbol was the cargo ship named Tsimtsum. When loading the animals onto the ship and heading off to Canada, the ship symbolically is perceived as Noah’s Ark. Yes, the ark is a biblical story, but it also appears in many other faith traditions including Hinduism and Islam. Naming the ship Tsimtsum, touches on Jewish mysticism in which Tsimtsum means that God “contracted his light from a certain space” hence, creating room for creation.  It touches on the idea that it’s necessary for creatures to go through a faith journey or struggle leading to independence so they can independently choose if they want a relationship with god. Another constant symbol through the movie was the color orange and the Orangutan named Orange Juice- representing Hindu spirituality, but also Orange Juice representing the mother figure in religion.

The movie only skimmed the internal struggle Pi felt in the book from being a vegetarian to becoming a carnivore in order to survive. The book has parts where Pi has visions of Mary, which the movie didn’t include. However, the movie did include the religious symbol of the island that Pi discovers made of Algae. The island could be a type of Eden that Pi’s boat bumps into filled with infinite vegetarian bounty to eat and plenty of meerkats for the tiger (Richard Parker), however it has a darker side when night falls. He sees the island eating itself, and when he opens up a fruit from the tree (symbolically the forbidden fruit?) he realizes he needs to leave the island.

Besides interfaith commonalities, this book explores the rise or even existence of people who claim more than one religious identity which itself is an important conversation to have. For the last four years I’ve been a participating member of an Unitarian Universalist community, while keeping my Muslim faith close to heart as well. My personal faith journey has been enlightening with its ups and downs; I’ve explored meditation, yoga, and other practices to grow my spirituality. So, I was thrilled and surprised when I began to read Life of Pi, and realized that a book about faith exploration was being made into a mainstream Hollywood movie. I hope the creation of this movie results in more interfaith conversations.

One other interesting symbol in the movie and the book that stayed with me after I left, was the presence of Richard Parker. At times through the movie, Pi refers to the presence of the tiger the only thing keeping him from falling into grief and hopelessness. The tiger becomes this god like creature keeping Pi afloat, but then at the same time towards the end of the movie Pi describes another story of his survival, which made me think, what if the tiger is Pi and god is within us all? I left the movie focusing more on that idea.

Would love to know what you thought about the movie? Did you see any symbolism I might have missed?

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5 responses to “Life of Pi: A Hollywood Movie about an Interfaith Journey?

  1. Great post – I enjoyed the movie. One of the scenes that stuck with me was when Richard Parker disappeared into the jungle. That maybe Richard Parker was a dimension of PI’s personality that appeared when he needed and left after it had served its purpose.

    • Hey Mo,

      That’s a great observation. It def goes with what I was thinking about god being inside all of us too- in times of struggle we go to a place inside of ourselves that gives us strength. I feel like the movie/book had so much philosophical meaning and symbolism- I def didn’t cover it all in this post! lol

  2. I saw the movie on Thanksgiving with my mom, and we both enjoyed it a lot; in fact, we’ll probably go see it a second time before it leaves theaters. It was aesthetically really wonderful, and brought up for me lots of epistemological questions about the nature and power of storytelling.

    • Glad you enjoyed the movie Richelle! I was glad in the end that I read the book before watching the movie, it filled in a lot of the blanks- but it was great to see the characters come to life. I definitely think this is a great movie to watch in any type of a world religions class to get a conversation started around having multiple religious identities. My favorite line from the movie “There is only one nation in the sky” 🙂

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