He is on the cusp of global superstardom but Suraj Sharma is like any other teenager from Delhi who likes college, hanging out with friends and watching Bollywood releases. Not for one moment do you feel that this youngster has had an opportunity that millions across the world can only dream of - playing the title role in a film directed by an acclaimed Hollywood filmmaker, based on a Man Booker-prize winning novel, alongside National Award winning actors and that is already being touted as one of the contenders for the Oscars!
Indeed, this 19-year-old St Stephenian's life has undergone a 180-degree change, much like that of his eponymous character in Ang Lee's Life of Pi. It all started two years ago when Suraj accompanied his brother for the auditions of the film and ended up getting the role. Just for the record, Suraj beat 3000 other contenders to play Pi, a precocious youngster who embraces Islam, Christianity and Hinduism in his spiritual quest only to have his faith shaken and then reaffirmed while surviving a shipwreck. To cut a long story short, Suraj was called by the makers, was asked to go to Mumbai to meet Ang Lee and then to Taiwan to undergo intensive training.
Today, Suraj is busy zipping across the world, attending world premieres and giving interviews to the international press. Yet, there is not a shade of self-importance in him; instead, there is just a quiet confidence and remarkable nonchalance about what has essentially been a life-altering experience. The film opened the Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF) where we caught up with the teen who has one of the most envious resumes in the film world currently...
Is this your first visit to Dubai?
Yes. But I unfortunately I can't spend too much time here. I have to head off to Sydney.
Life of Pi is taking you around the world. Are you getting used to the starry life?
Yes, it's been great! (laughs). You get to see places, meet different people... it's a lot of fun.
You have just entered college. Why did you choose philosophy as a subject for graduation?
Two reasons - Life of Pi and Ang Lee! If you spend the amount of time that I did with Ang, you do get affected. He is pretty intense and philosophical himself (smiles). I guess I was deeply influenced by him. The subject just felt apt.
Recently there were reports of how you almost missed your exams at St Stephens. Has the imbroglio been sorted? (Suraj's international tours had caused problems in his attendance and the authorities at the premier Delhi college almost barred him).
Yes, thankfully! I don't know why they were so difficult. There were so many things going on that my schedules did go a bit haywire. It's ok, it was something I had to deal with. I finally managed to give my exams.
Coming to the film, how did you react when you watched it for the first time?
Making the film was a very personal experience so I deliberately didn't watch any part of it while shooting. Moreover, I was constantly with Yann Martel (the author on whose book the film is based on), so that added to the pressure. But I have watched it five times now and I still can't see it as a movie. Every shot has a hundred memories attached to it. It was an incredible experience to see Richard Parker (the computer generated Tiger) finally on screen. It's mind-boggling how Ang envisioned it; at times, even I didn't know when the tiger was real! I only played Pi. But Ang added a lot of funny things to it (smiles).
How has your family reacted to the film?
They were initially skeptical. I was in the 12th grade and had never been out of the country so when I had to go to Taiwan, they were apprehensive. Then they met Ang and their worries vanished. Now they are quite happy.
What was the most challenging scene?
The scene where Pi watches his family die was very difficult. I didn't know how to swim and had to learn how to hold my breath under water. While shooting, I had forget all that and focus on emotions which was difficult. Imagine, having to enact a scene over and over again where you watch your family die! I just wanted to get it over and done with.
The Oscar Buzz is already in the air. How prepared are you for it?
Can you prepare for these things? Frankly, I haven't been prepared for anything that has been going on. Getting the role itself has not sunk in. The Oscars are pretty far out.
What movies do like to watch?
I watch all kinds of movies but the deep dark, intense and inspiring films are the ones I enjoy the most. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Bicycle Thief, A Beautiful Mind etc.
Do you like Bollywood masala films?
Of course! I am an Indian. I do watch Bollywood; I grew up on it.
Do you think you can be a regular Delhi teenager now?
I still am a regular Delhi teen. What has changed (laughs)?
You are certainly not regular!
Okay, so this is how I look at it. I am an ordinary boy-next-door in an extra-ordinary situation (smiles).
Do you like reading?
No. I am not a reader at all!
Doesn't working on a movie like this change your perspective?
Oh yes! It changes your perspective on everything. I can't explain how I feel right now.
Do you want a movie career after college?
I don't know. I haven't planned anything. I would rather take things as they come. I do want to be in the movies - whether in front of the camera or behind it.
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