A Slice of Pi with India a la Mode

I don't think I spotted a cow but I might have missed it because I was too focused on the orang utan and the zebra and the hyena and the Royal Bengal tiger.

The meandering cow, such the stock character of the 'realistic' Hollywood film set in India, seems thankfully missing in Life of Pi. There is a goat but it does have an important cameo to play in film instead of just adding local "gee whiz we are in India" colour. In fact if you are an Indian, and a vegetarian, as many Indians are, be warned before you rush out to see this film. This film should come with a statutory warning – not for the squeamish vegetarian.

The colour and visual spendour of India tends to overwhelm any film that is set in India. And Life of Pi is no exception. Ang Lee pretty much admits as much to DNA when he says "the country overwhelms you, with the warmth, the culture and its beauty".

Even in the hands of a director as astute as him, India feels over saturated, wide-eyed and eye-popping, prone to fortune cookie maxim. It's a striking contrast to the richly detailed but so much more atmospheric Shanghai he created for Lust, Caution. That felt epic and intimate at the same time. This India feels Amar Chitra Katha – bold colours without much shading.

The book was widely regarded as unfilmable but author Yann Martel has said he never thought so. "The novel is full of contrast colours: the blue ocean, the white lifeboat, the brown boy, the orange and black tiger, the green island," he told Hollywood Reporter. "And India is very visual."

"It's a very spiritual and fascinating country. It's also very inspiring and colourful," Ang Lee told TOI. But the India portion takes its Technicolor too literally. It feels weighed down by its own big fat marigold garlands. The conversations at the dining table are strangely stilted. Mama-ji's oddball Peter Sellers routine is astounding, as in astoundingly anachronistically bad. And the whirlwind tour of Hinduism feels like a National Geographic special with some little-baby-Krishna bedtime tales and a thousand flickering diyas. And every homily is hammered home with a sledgehammer.

The problem is, as audience members, we are not being made to feel as if we are in India. Instead, we constantly feel that we are looking at India. But this is not a Passage to India film. Pi lives in India. He is supposedly so at home here he does not want to emigrate to Canada for a better life. But the film isn't at home in India. It's still stuck in a discovery of India mode. We are more forgiving of films like Pi because it's mostly about Incredible India as opposed to Slumdog India but it's an outsider's gaze either way.

Martel disagrees.

"I like how they lingered on India," he said. "They could've hurried through that and focused on the Pacific. It's so visually stunning. It's rare to have India portrayed in cinema — despite it being an economy of a billion people, it's quite rare to have it shown in the screen as it is."

But really it's only when the film leaves behind the heat and dust of "visually stunning" India and moves to the open seas that it finally takes off for me. Then it's a story of a boy and a tiger, man and nature and the film relaxes and feels at home even though both of its characters are out of their element in the middle of a vast ocean.

I stop being jarred by the hotch potch of accents. I stop wondering why people who should be normally speaking to each other in Tamil in Pondicherry are speaking strangely accented English instead as if they were all in Spoken English class. And I stop being annoyed by an array of characters, whether it's swimming champion Mama-ji or the dancing school teacher, delivering their lines as if dredging up the wisdom of the ancients because we in India are just so in touch with our hoary cultural heritage we cannot say "pass the curry" without sounding like we are sharing a valuable nugget from the Rig Veda.

Its India connection is what makes Life of Pi of such interest to Indians. "It's a masterpiece!! So much Tamil in it!! Don't miss it," gushed AR Rahman recently on a social networking site. But the book (and the film) is set in India by accident. Martel just happened to be here for six months in 1997 working on another novel that did not happen. The spark that gave rise to Pi came from a Brazilian novella about a castaway and a jaguar. He then added India to the mix because, as he told Outlook, "India lends itself very well to such a story because it has a lot of animals and a lot of religions." So let's not get carried away. This is not Octopussy but it's not the "India as it is" that Martel thinks it is. The story is a twist on the classic immigrant story – about a boy who leaves home (which happens to be India) and then ends up, not in America or Canada or London, but in the middle of nowhere. That's the real story and the far more interesting one.

"We will sail like Columbus," says Pi's father enthusiastically while announcing the decision to move to Canada.

Pi, dejected at the thought of leaving Pondicherry, responds, "But Columbus was looking for India."

So it seems is Hollywood. Even when it is in India, it is still looking for India.