When Lolita Chakrabarti set out to adapt Yann Martel’s best-selling novel Life of Pi into a stage work, she approached it with a sense of play. And not just because the show was going to involve puppets. “I looked at Yann Martel's wonderful book and thought, which bits do I like? Which bits do I want?” she describes, regarding her process of culling the bits from the book that would be the most theatrically rich. And there was one part that Chakrabarti is particularly proud of: “I've put more women in it,” she says. The book featured exclusively male characters, aside from the main character’s mother, and she’s been especially excited for that adaptation choice: “I've changed some of the characters to be women. And that’s been thrilling. Because why not? They can be.”
In Life of Pi, currently running on Broadway until July 23, an Indian family is aboard a ship when it sinks, leaving behind the main character Pi and a Bengal tiger as the only survivors. The play tells the story in flashback, with Pi telling his story to some Japanese officials while recuperating in a hospital. The role of Pi is currently being played by Indian actor Uma Paranjpe, taking over for Hiran Abeysekera, who originated the role but has left the production to go back to his home in the U.K. Paranjpe is a female actor, Abeysekera is a male actor. So when they each do Life of Pi, Pi uses different pronouns depending on the actor playing the role.
Pi is not the only character whose gender was changed in the adaptation from book to stage. Pi’s older brother is changed to his sister for the stage. And one of the male Japanese officials from the book is a female Japanese official in the play. This conscious choice, to have more women, especially women of color, on the stage, is a reflection of why Chakrabarti became a playwright in the first place.
She started writing because “I was a bit bored between my acting jobs. And I was limited by casting as a woman, someone who’s South Asian. And now to add to it with age. So just the limitations of what was out there made me think, can I tell stories?”
Chakrabarti made her Broadway debut as the playwright behind Life of Pi, which won three Tony Awards for its design. The play premiered on the West End, earning Chakrabarti an Olivier Award for Best New Play. It ran for two years in London and it is currently touring throughout the U.K. and Ireland. Through it all, Chakrabarti has discovered the power in being the one to tell the story, instead of waiting for someone to let you tell it. “It's thrilling to be able to take—not quite a blank piece of paper, because we're all on laptops now—but the equivalent of a blank piece of paper and write the world you want to write. And it's very empowering,” she says.
Chakrabarti made her playwriting debut in 2012 with Red Velvet, which starred her husband Adrian Lester (last seen on Broadway in The Lehman Trilogy) about the ground-breaking 19th-century Black actor Ira Aldridge. It played Off-Broadway in 2014. Since then, Chakrabarti has balanced her career as an in-demand actor and playwright. Her play Hamnet will be mounted on the West End this fall—about William Shakespeare and his wife Anne Hathaway.
"I think it's changed a huge amount, particularly in the last five years," Chakrabarti says of diversity in the U.K. theatre. "Whether there's enough roles, if you ask any actor that question, I'm sure they'll all give you a resounding no. But hopefully, I'm adding to the opportunities and the possibilities."
Chakrabarti is remarkably humble, considering there's not many Indian playwrights who have received both a West End and a Broadway production, especially not female Indian playwrights (the only other female Indian writer who has been produced on Broadway is Meera Syal, who wrote the book to the musical Bombay Dreams). But when Chakrabarti started on Life of Pi, the original plan was a single production in the regional Crucible Theatre in Sheffield, South Yorkshire, England. If it did well, then the play would transfer to the West End. Then COVID delayed the West End transfer and for a long time, it seemed like the future of the show was in jeopardy. So now, even though Life of Pi is closing earlier on Broadway than expected, a U.S. tour is in the works for 2024. But all of it is more than Chakrabarti ever dreamed for her play (she describes winning awards as a “cherry on a cherry on a cherry on a cake”).
“It sounds like it was all written in the stars,” remarks Chakrabarti, wryly, “But we opened in London, you didn’t know how it's gonna go down. COVID was still happening. We were all masked and testing and theatres were closing with all the illnesses. And we closed for a few days as well. And you just don't know how it's gonna last…And now we're here on Broadway. So you just don't know.” She then adds, proudly, “I think it's a huge achievement that we've got here.”
Life of Pi has also allowed Chakrabarti to tell a story on the Broadway stage that’s close to her own family history. She was born in the port city of Kingston upon Hull; her parents immigrated to the U.K. from Calcutta, India in 1960—her father was an orthopedic surgeon. Likewise, Pi’s family sets out in the story on a journey from Pondicherry to Canada. In Pi’s resilience—to be able to survive such a horrific circumstance of being trapped in the open sea on a small boat with a tiger—Chakrabarti sees echoes of her own parents.
“I'm British Indian. And so I totally understand within the context of my family and relatives, what that immigration meant—how hard they work and against the grain, and how demanding they're of their children,” explains Chakrabarti. “And so yes, that totally resonated, and I could put my experience into the play, and maybe enhance what Yann had put in a story beat.”
So in the play, Pi’s parents have an even bigger role than they do in the book. During the scenes where Pi is shipwrecked and his family is gone—in the books it’s just him monologuing and retelling his story to a listener, but in the play, Pi has dialogues with his parents and his sister, who remind him of his own resilience. And it also makes the play less of a one-man show for most of its running time.
Chakrabarti was approached by producer Simon Friend about adapting Life of Pi. She wrote the first draft in 2017, by herself without any involvement from the other members of the creative team. She admits that it transformed greatly as director Max Webster and puppet designer Finn Caldwell came into the process—the plan was always to use puppets to portray the important animal characters in the story.
“I've rewritten the whole thing,” she says of the current version of the show versus the 2017 version. “The action has changed. I wrote things in the first draft, where, for instance, flocks of flamingos passed. And when a rhinoceros just ambles past. And none of these animals have any story within the actual story, I just thought, we're in a zoo in a tropical country, let me put some fabulous animals. In reality, to make a flock of flamingos, and a rhinoceros costs thousands of dollars, and they have to earn their place in the story. So they're not in it anymore. So you know, that sort of thing.”
But what’s stayed the same is the core of the story. Life of Pi is about many things—human resilience, the power of faith—but a core component is storytelling. Both the book and the play are told in flashback, as Pi tells his story to a patient listener, as a way to process his own trauma and as a way to instill a sense of wonder, to make the listener “believe in God.”
For Chakrabarti, the COVID-19 pandemic, which delayed Life of Pi’s West End debut, amplified the play’s message of the need of humanity to tell stories.
“Pre-COVID, theatre can sometimes feel like, well, it is a luxury…which is still the case in many ways. But I think when everything shut, and there was no theatre available, the need and hunger for it reinvented its purpose. And everybody was online, doing what they could to tell stories…And I thought, gosh, no matter what, we're not to be stopped,” remarks Chakrabarti. “One of the influences when I started writing, one of my favorite poems is, ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.’ And that feeling of needing, that there's no way you can't tell your story. It's not therapy—it's just, you have to say it because it was so intense and it happened. And so you have to share it.”
And instead of the albatross around his neck, it’s a Bengal tiger?
Replies Chakrabarti, with a smile, “Yes, yes. Very much so.”