At home, I’m like my other; as a director, I’m macho-Ang Lee
Priya Gupta & Haimanti Mukherjee (BOMBAY TIMES; October 30, 2012)
Oscar-winning director Ang Lee asked for masala chai before he sat down for an exclusive conversation with Bombay Times at a suburban Mumbai hotel just ahead of his latest film Life Of Pi, adapted from Yann Martel’s Booker winner.
What made you choose Life Of Pi?
The book chose me. I read it when it came out in 2001. I introduced my wife and kids to the book. It was a very difficult book to adapt, both economically and artistically. I didn’t agree to make it right away. But then I started thinking and after eight months of contemplating, I finally said yes as I was challenged by the idea to translate this story on celluloid.
Do you see it as an Indian story?
No, I don’t think it’s an Indian story. I think it’s Canadian. Yann Martel wrote it as a Canadian. People use the East to make a philosophical point as East is unknown to them. The story is about the illusion called life. How does one survive when you don’t have society and organised religion, and are left at the mercy of the sea? You can rely on yourself, and a higher power. You face God and emotionally connect with the unknown.
What was your impression of India when you came here on your first visit?
My first impression was that you have to stay here to understand it. India isn’t a place you understand in a day or a week or even a month. There are such tall buildings surrounded by slums. There are highs and lows right next to one another, and it was a huge culture shock for me. A friend of mine took me to a Bollywood shooting as I was curious. I peeked into a shooting and suddenly saw myself surrounded by so many people who recognised me. It was a very good feeling. Thereafter I visited many temples and zoos in South India as it related to the film.
One of my temple visits was most interesting. I was told that it was an easy day to visit the temple but I still had to stand four hours in a line! It was so frustrating. I was told that on a normal day one had to wait for ten hours. But the connection that I felt after seeing the deity was worth the four-hour wait. I’m not religious, but I felt this instant connection when I looked into the deity’s eyes.
Even though I felt hopeless while waiting, I saw hope once I saw the deity. It was an experience that I can’t explain.
What did you like about India?
The smile on children’s faces is beautiful and I don’t find that anywhere in the world. While the life here can be much better, their smile is like gold. Indian crew is at par with the best in the world. Unlike in the West, Indians are very warm people.
Now that the film is made, how do you feel?
I feel exhausted. In fact, I have never ever felt this exhausted before. That happens when you delve that far into your psychology, added with the financial responsibility of a big-budgeted film as well as the weight of responsibility of 3,000 people who have worked on this film with me. You become the movie you are making. Similar to the journey of Pi, who first had to survive physically and after that had to fight to keep his sanity.
Having seen so much success, how have you been able to keep your humility?
I am a very normal person. When people see what’s on the screen, they say ‘wow’, and I want to hear that, but after watching they ask me a lot of questions that I don’t have answers for. For me, it is extremely difficult after making the movie to rationalise or explain the film. So, humility becomes my retreat and space.
You are known to be a family person. Is that true?
I am very close to my family and get my security from them. My family is my blood, my safety net. I started out by doing a family drama. Every film of mine has a strong family element. Before I started making films, my wife worked for six years while I stayed at home cooking and looking after my two sons. Then, when I started making films, she looked after our home.
China is a patriarchal society, yet you stayed at home when your wife worked. You seem extremely liberal?
My father was a principal and I was brought up chauvinistically. Over time I became liberal. My relationship with my wife grew naturally. Between us, she is rational and I am the emotional one. She runs our life, is the stronger figure and the principal at home. It’s the opposite of how I grew up. At home, I am like my mother, but as a director, I am macho.
I don’t know why, but I make good movies when the central characters are women or gay men. I have not done a macho film but maybe with this one, it’s different because it is about a boy’s journey.
My father did not agree with my making films, as in China, they don’t value entertainers as they misbehave. But because I lead a normal life and as I behaved better than a school teacher and made money, my father’s opinion about me changed.
What was your experience working with Tabu, Irrfan and Suraj Sharma?
Tabu is sublime, Irrfan is spontaneous and Suraj is the most unique actor I have worked with in my career.
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