If you know Rajiv Surendra at all, it’s probably from his scene-stealing performance as Kevin G., a rapping mathlete in the 2004 movie Mean Girls. He threw himself into the audition, wowed the director, and never saw the same level of pop-culture success again. (Excluding, naturally, his shirtless recreation of the rap for BuzzFeed this summer.) Twelve years later he has written a memoir about his involvement with another film – one that consumed him, but in which he was not ultimately cast. In The Elephants in My Backyard, the Toronto-based Surendra chronicles his six-year journey to land the title role in the film adaptation of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi.
You can’t blame him. As a young brown actor in Canada, almost every role he auditioned for involved playing a terrorist or a techie. Pi and Surendra shared a similar physique (small), heritage (Tamil), and approach to religion (ecumenical). Other factors – which include growing up in a house within spitting distance of the Toronto Zoo (hence the memoir’s title) – turned this desire into a magnificent obsession.
Surendra took a year off from university to travel to India and immerse himself in the real world of the fictional Pi. He learned how to swim and explored the world of castaways. He sabotaged his prospects at starring in a Hollywood sitcom on the off, off chance he might possibly one day get cast as Pi in a movie that took nearly a decade and a revolving door of directors to move from page to screen.
There’s much to admire in Surendra’s singular pursuit of his dream and the method (acting) to his madness. The memoir serves double duty as a cautionary tale and an inspirational one. But as empathetic as our wannabe Pi is, perhaps he sat too closely to those mean girls on set. He writes sarcastically about the clothing choices of teachers, co-workers, and even dermatologists, as if not keeping up with fashion trends signifies a mortal character flaw. Some attempts at humour cross over into the offensive, as when he refers to an elderly, skinny man at a University of Toronto swimming pool as someone who looks like he has “just returned from Auschwitz.” Comparisons of poor Indian children to stray dogs and mimicking the patois of a “sassy” – code for black, I assume – airport security officer named Laverneesha struck me as tone-deaf.
But what weighs down the memoir more than these lapses in judgment is that much of Surendra’s story not related to his pursuit of the role of Pi is unremarkable. To compensate, he inserts observations about life and art imitating or borrowing from each other, leading to some heavy-handed moments of meta-narrative. That the book ends with Surendra at a happy place with work, life, and sexuality comes as welcome news, but a deeper connection between author and readers in the preceding pages is required to earn this happy ending. This connection proves as elusive as Surendra’s pursuit of Pi.