Cast of Life of Pi talks life, challenges and acting in Dubai

December 10, 2012

Take one look at Suraj Sharma and all you see is your average college student - cheerful, floppy-haired and with a perpetual smile.

But the past three years have been anything but average for the 19-year-old Indian, who plays the title role in the critically acclaimed Life of Pi.

In Dubai for the ninth edition of the Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF) which opened with his visually stunning film, Sharma admits, unsurprisingly, that Pi has been his biggest challenge yet.

[ See Suraj Sharma and the rest of the cast on the red carpet]

"It was a challenge that taught me everything I know almost," he said, with a charm that made it hard to believe this is his first ever role.

"My eyes really opened up to a lot; I guess I grew up also in many ways. It's hard to explain how much I changed or how my life changed."

The first-time actor was chosen from 3,000 hopefuls to play the role of the young boy stranded at sea in Ang Lee's interpretation of Yann Martel's award-winning novel.

Chance audition

But acting had never been on Sharma's radar.

Accompanying his brother to auditions for the then-unknown project, Sharma was encouraged to try out by the casting director.

"I didn't expect anything and didn't want anything at that point," he said. But six months and four rounds of auditions later, Sharma's tune had changed.

"Fourth round [I] met Ang in Bombay [and] didn't expect anything but really, really wanted it. I was really nervous. My hands were shaking and I forgot my lines and I thought, there you go, I've lost my chance - can't be Pi now."

Lucky for him, Lee gave him a second chance and directed him through the audition and into the role.

[Full coverage from the Dubai International Film Festival]

'He's almost possessed'

So how is it working with one of Hollywood's most celebrated filmmakers?

With Lee, "you never need to act," said Sharma, adding "he makes things very real - be it the set, be it your own emotions, be it your character."

All it takes to get into character is a five minute conversation with the Taiwanese director, according to Sharma.  "He creates this atmosphere around you that you start feeling so much. His eyes are so intense; he's almost possessed."

Turning into Pi

To prepare for the role, Sharma, who had no acting experience, undertook a rigorous three-month training schedule.

"I didn't know how to swim or act. I'd never been near the ocean, so I got accustomed to waves, oceans, boats..." he said.  Yoga, concentration training, breath holds and a strict diet of tuna and lettuce later, Sharma had become Pi.

His biggest co-star in the film is a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker, created completely with CGI.

"I brainwashed myself into believing there was a tiger on the boat, even though I knew there wasn't,"  Sharma admits, "Initially it was strange."

Future plans

To make your acting debut in such a high-profile film is a dream for any young hopeful, but Sharma is taking it as it goes.

"I don't know whether I'm an actor or not," he reflected modestly. "I know eventually I want to be in film, be it as an actor or behind the camera," he says, adding that he just wants to be a "storyteller".

"Be true, that's the main thing. You just have to be very honest."

On Dubai

Sharma has travelled across the world promoting Pi and Dubai is just one place he'd like to explore more.

"Dubai is awesome. It's not like any other place," he said. And what's his favourite thing been about the emirate so far? The food.

"Kibbeh, sheesh tawouk and shawarma. Those three things I will eat a lot of!"

Joining Sharma in Dubai were co-stars Adil Hussain, who plays his father on screen, and Shravanthi Sainath who stars as his love-interest.

Shravanthi Sainath

For Sainath, also a first time actress, working on Pi is nothing short of a dream."This is my first acting experience. I think I'm very blessed to be a part of this big project," she said.

Sainath plays a shy dancer named Anandi, who catches the young Pi's eye in the film. "I was just a normal school girl and now I walk on red carpets," she said.

And perhaps Bollywood is on the horizon for the trained classical dancer.

"My life is all about dancing. I'm open to movies and if I get a good role, I will definitely do it."

And who is her favourite star? None other than Bollywood royalty, Aishwarya Rai, who she cites as her inspiration and role model.  "I worship her," she gushed.

Adil Hussain

Indian actor, Adil Hussain, who plays Pi's strict but loving father on screen channeled his own father to prepare for the part.

"I think any actor in any role has to bring things from his own experience, knowingly or unknowingly," he said.

The role is a tribute to his father, in a way, he added.

The star of this year's hit English Vinglish, said working with Ang Lee was fabulous. "He has this amazing tenderness, gentleness about him," he said of Lee.

For the long-time stage actor, acting on film is still a learning process. "I've just started my career in film...I'm yet to get used to this thing," he said, pointing to the camera.

"I'm trying to learn just to be true."

For more coverage on the Dubai International Film Festival, click here.