The former French enclave of Pondicherry on India's south coast shot into the limelight internationally, following the runaway success of Tiger-Boy story, 'Life of Pi'. Directed by the Oscar-winning Ang Lee, and partly filmed in Pondy where the protagonist Pi grew up, the film took home four Academy Awards this year including Best Director (Ang Lee), Best Cinematographer (Claudio Miranda), Best Visual Effects and Best Original Score.
Meanwhile back home, as Pondicherry's tourism officials scramble about in an opportunistic bid to capitalize on the worldwide success of the film, our very own Pondicherrian Bagalavan Perier relives his experience working on the sets of the film.
It was late 2010, when the film's pre production team visited Pondicherry University to recruit students for the set. Perier sailed through the interviews, and soon found himself working with one of cinema's greatest living legends, Ang Lee, in the capacity of a production set assistant, translator and a background artist.
Here are excerpts of an interesting conversation with Perier.
For how many days did 'Life in Pi' play in Pondichery, and in which theatres?
I am disappointed to say that this film which has put our city on an international map, was screened for just a week in Pondicherry at Raja theatre. That too in a normal 2-D mode with many technical problems in sound, aspect ratio of the screening size, etc. They could not screen the 3D version because they didn’t have that facility. Moreover, the film wasn't even advertised properly here. Audiences who did come to Raja Theater were bored after the first 30 minutes when they realized that Pondy wasn't coming back again on screen. If the film was shown in 3D, their attention would have been retained until the end. The film was also a visual treat and not just a matter of Pondicherry being featured in it.
Pondy in general faces an issue whenever a 3D movie is released. We used to have some really good theatres earlier however they were converted into hotels and marriage halls because of DVD piracy issues and lack of co-operation from the government.
Memories of the teenage Pi (Suraj Sharma) on the sets.
Yes, he was here in Pondy to shoot certain scenes such as the dance class, the market scene, the final goodbye with his sweetheart Anandi on the pier and a few others. Apart from his scenes, he would sometimes visit the set and closely watch the shoot. At times, he would go up and speak to the camera man, editor and other technicians. I witnessed first-hand on the sets, the chemistry between Suraj and Ang Lee which was unbelievable. This is one of the biggest reasons why the film turned out so beautifully.
|Ang Lee explaining the scene to Suraj at Kezhoor Set|
And Tabu (Pi's mother) and Irfaan Khan (adult Pi)?
Tabu would finish her shot and then go into her caravan. It was quite rare to see her on the sets if she wasn't shooting. However the day we were shooting inside the Pondicherry Botanical Gardens, was the same day the Padma Shri awards were announced. As luck would have it, on that day itself I was asked to call her on the set. When she emerged from her caravan, I congratulated her. She accepted my wishes with a smile I'll never forget no matter how hard I try. With regards to Irfaan Khan, though he did not have any scenes to shoots in Pondy, he was still present on the sets observing everything for a couple of days.
|Pi's parents at the Pondicherry Botanical Gardens|
Photo- Peter Sorel
In previous interviews, you mentioned Ang Lee being a humble perfectionist. Are these qualities difficult to find in the Indian film industry in general?
Obviously. It's very rare to see both qualities together in the Indian film industry. We have very good perfectionists, but they are not necessarily humble and kind. This is my opinion after personally witnessing some Indian film shoots. Usually people try to rationalize saying that since the director is the captain of the ship he is naturally tensed at all times. Ang Lee was in fact cool at all times.
Another interesting point is that most directors in India try to take over other areas of the filmmaking process such as screenplay, story, script, sometimes even music and lyrics. This is why when directors write for their films, you'll find similarities across all their films. This happens because they follow a particular ideology that spills over into all aspects of their work. It is quite rare to find a director who will direct another persons story.
In contrast, in Hollywood, each department is micro managed by its own teams. The director will only direct the film; in some cases he could co-write it. But very often, the story, script and even the screenplay will be written by separate entities with no interference from the director who will do just what he is supposed to do - Direct! Perhaps this explains why some directors are cool on the sets.
As for humility, this has to come by birth.
|Ang Lee during the shoot at Calve College School - Mission Street|
Have you watched any of Ang Lee's films?
I watched Brokeback Mountain, Hulk & Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. One needs guts to make films like Brokeback Mountain (2005), because in those days when the film was released, even the west had not completely accepted gay relationships. However he portrayed the relationship between two men tastefully without a trace of crudeness or discomfort. About Hulk, the excellent screenplay made it an action-packed entertainer however in my opinion I think they could have worked more on the graphics of the character. I watched Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon only once, and I don't remember too much except for the flying fight scenes.
|Bagalavan Perier & translator on the sets at Pondicherry Helipad|
I worked with them for nearly 40 days which includes 16 days of shoot in Pondicherry. They were strict about keeping time. Call sheets were distributed to each and every crew member at the end of the day regarding the next days shoot. Those sheets would mention the name of the person, at what time he would be picked up and what time he'd have to report to the set.
I was in charge of the background artists, and things were not always smooth. The background artists who are not professionals from the industry did not understand the importance of time on a film set where production costs soar as the clock ticks. I was supposed to be picked up early in the morning and then either reach the set or take a vehicle to various areas. But mostly the drivers would reach my home late. It was quite normal for the background artists to reach the sets after the actual reporting time.
Some locations in Pondy where the sequences were shot?
The school sequences were shot in Calve College Higher Secondary School, Government Girls French School (in front of Dumas Church) and Petit Seminaire Higher Secondary School on M.G Road. The scene where Pi speaks to the priest in the church was shot at Rosary Church, Muthialpet. Other locations include the Botanical Gardens, the Goubert Flower Market, Mullah Street, the PWD office (Rue Romain Rolland), Kezhoor Market, Tirukameshwarar Temple (Villianur), the pier, etc.
|Wardrobe Base - Sets of Life of Pi (Pondicherry Helipad)|
Photo - Bagalavan Perier
Based on your experience, what are the differences between our homegrown productions and those from Hollywood.
I've observed Tamil ad film shoots and feature film shoots in Pondicherry, both of which do not stress that much on pre production work. In contrast, the Life of Pi crew started pre production work in Pondy more than six months before the actual shoot commenced. Great attention to detail was given even to background artists.
The temple scene had 2500 background artists. Several women turned up wearing heavy makeup (lipstick, etc). All of that had to be taken off to give them a clean, natural 1960s look. Boys with spiky gelled hair had their hair oiled and flattened.
Cinematographer Claudio Miranda often changed frames even after the camera was fixed, citing his reasons to Ang Lee for the change.
|Suraj is ecstatic|
The shooting of Life of Pi is over. Oscars have been won. Life goes on. What's next for you.
I currently work as an audio assistant for a radio station. I would like to move into the academic line and teach students of mass media. When I was a student, we suffered for a lack of practical sessions as it was mostly theory-based. This needs to change. I will continue to make documentary films alongside as it won't disturb my teaching career. There are no 200 page scripts to follow and no actors to cast. Just research and follow through.
Images embed from 'Life of Pi Movie' photostream on Flickr.
Thanks to Bagalavan Perier for other pics.