'Prithviraj's commitment gave 'Aadujeevitham: The Goat Life' an unparalleled depth': Blessy, Benyamin

The actor abstained from food and drink for a rigorous two-day period

70-A-still-from-The-Goat-Life Desert diary: A still from The Goat Life.

Most pan-Indian mega-hits from the south have something in common―a super-human alpha male who has conquered every weakness. Be it the ex-cop who can decapitate people with a single swing of the machete (Jailer), or the gangster who goes on a rampage inside the Parliament to avenge his dead wife (KGF 2), or the prince who breaches the heavily-guarded fort of an evil king by single-handedly catapulting palm trees at it (Baahubali 2). The protagonist is too macho for cheap sentimentality, and any tear he sheds is amply compensated by the blood of the enemy.

Enter Najeeb Muhammed, the hero of writer Benyamin's 2008 book Goat Days (Aadujeevitham in Malayalam). He is an ordinary man who lands in Saudi Arabia with the hope of a better life for his family. In the dunes of 'the Gulf', he is subjected to unimaginable misery when he is forced into slavery as a goatherd by a cruel master, with little chance of ever meeting his family again. The novel, based on real-life events, is one of the top sellers in Malayalam. Penguin described it as “a universal tale of loneliness and alienation”. It is just this universality that will underpin the success of The Goat Life, the book's pan-Indian, multi-language film adaptation, feels Benyamin.

“Because suffering is the same everywhere,” he says.

The survival drama, to be directed by national award-winning filmmaker Blessy, hits the theatres on March 28. It stars Prithviraj Sukumaran, who was last seen in the Prabhas-starrer Salaar, as Najeeb. Set to release in five languages, The Goat Life aims to become a trend-setter across India while staying loyal to the 'realistically grand' brand of filmmaking the Malayalam film industry is known for.

70-Benyamin-and-Blessy Benyamin (left) and Blessy | Aravind Venugopal

But, can a story of tears and suffering compete with the gun-slinging, over-the-top spectacle of films like Pathaan and Jailer? Benyamin is sure it will. Language, he feels, will not be a barrier. “We are narrating the ordeal of a man who is trapped with an 'Arbab' (boss), the only human around him,” he says. “Najeeb cannot even speak his language. So language becomes least important when we are telling such a tale. Instead, action, pain and silence take centre-stage. Thus, any person around the world can relate to the movie.”

In fact, the silences in the film speak louder than words, and elements like music, to punctuate the mood, become very important. That's why it was so advantageous to have A.R. Rahman and Resul Pookutty onboard to “create and capture the emptiness of the vast desert, the loneliness that haunts the lead and his trauma”, says Benyamin.

Benyamain Benyamain speaking to The Week during KLF 2024 | Vishnudas KS

The same goes for the VFX. To capture desert life with all its sundry sounds and sights―the hissing rattlesnakes and crawling camel spiders―demanded top-notch VFX. According to Blessy, the visual effects display Hollywood-level perfection and was meticulously crafted over a year and a half. The trailer, with stunning visuals of bleeding purple skies and swirling sandstorms, bears witness to this. “The film's substantial budget served as a cornerstone,” says Blessy. “The strive for an unparalleled cinematic experience did yield results.”

Benyamin says that Blessy has made the story his own. “The challenge before him was to translate Najeeb's trauma and thoughts into pictures,” says the writer. “He studied in detail how loneliness changed Najeeb's mannerisms. He delved deep into the novel to understand the mental and physical changes Najeeb underwent, and then he discussed them with me, Prithviraj and the real Najeeb.”

Blessy elaborates further on his interaction with the real Najeeb: ''Before the shoot began, Benyamin, Najeeb, and I had an extensive conversation. It was my first encounter with Najeeb, whose real name is Shukoor. [He assumed the name Najeeb after the success of the book]. Najeeb shared more about his experiences beyond the novel―his initial hardships, silent struggles, and tearful moments. When I inquired about his response to his master's cruelty, he revealed that crying continuously prevented him from meeting the Arbab's eyes.”

Both Benyamin and Blessy vouch for Prithviraj's talent and commitment to the role. (The actor lost 30kg to transform into Najeeb.) “Prithviraj's dynamic involvement as a director, actor, and producer unfolded as a testament to his profound dedication to embodying Najeeb's character,” says Blessy. “His transformative journey went beyond the realms of conventional acting and evolved into a lived experience. His unique and immersive approach imbued the narrative with an unparalleled depth and authenticity. This was an extraordinary contribution to the cinematic portrayal of Najeeb's compelling journey.”

For fans of the novel, the movie promises to take the story forward. Benyamin says that Blessy has introduced a new visual language while staying connected to the novel. “It is Blessy's movie,” he says. According to the director, the screen deserved more emphasis on how the indescribable torture transformed the man physically. “Because details matter in visuals,” says Blessy. “Portraying Najeeb demanded surpassing the narrative constraints of the novel. The actor abstaining from food and drink for a rigorous two-day period was an intense approach to authentically capture the nuances of the character's journey. This made it possible to elevate the movie into a palpable experience for the audience surpassing the confines of the written word.”

The film does not just illuminate suffering; it is also a testament to the resilience of the human spirit. And perhaps there is no one like Blessy―known for his poignant filmmaking that mines hope from the depths of hopelessness―who can bring Benyamin's story to life.