'Malayalam cinema is yet to discover lot of untapped markets': Prithviraj

Prithviraj's Aadujeevitham (The Goat Life) takes Malayalam cinema to global audience

66-A-still-from-The-Goat-Life Living to tell the tale: A still from The Goat Life.

Interview/ Prithviraj Sukumaran, actor-director

The name Prithviraj means ‘one who rules the world’. Actor-director Prithviraj Sukumaran dreams of the Indian film industry, particularly his home industry Mollywood, ruling the global entertainment landscape with quality content.

I am truly flattered that I am a part of a filmmaker’s vision behind which he threw 16 years of his life.

The 41-year-old, who has been in lead roles for 22 years, is considered a great visionary in Mollywood. He has been a successful director, playback singer, producer, distributor and action choreographer.

His latest film, The Goat Life, directed by the National Award-winning director Blessy, takes Malayalam cinema to a global audience. An international coproduction involving companies in India and the US, The Goat Life is an adaptation of the bestselling Malayalam novel Aadujeevitham by Benyamin. The novel is based on the experiences of Najeeb, a Malayali labourer who was forced into slavery as a goatherd on a secluded, Saudi Arabian farm.

Prithviraj spoke to THE WEEK about The Goat Life and its grand vision, and the struggles he and Blessy had to go through to complete the shoot. Excerpts:

Q\ The Goat Life is based on a novel about the experiences of Najeeb. Did you talk to him before undertaking the film? What insights did he share?

A\ The first time I spoke to Najeeb was after the last shot of the film. He was on location that day. So I did the final shot, the director said cut and wrap, and that is when I walked behind the camera and spoke to him for the first time. We recorded and shot the conversation, and I think it should be releasing very soon. My interpretation of Najeeb is largely dependent on the book and Blessy’s vision of the story.

Q\ As a filmmaker yourself, how would you assess Blessy’s efforts in bringing the book to the screen?

A\ I don’t think anybody else could have done it better. Blessy is a truly gifted filmmaker. The kind of time and conviction he has thrown behind this project―taking 16 years of one’s life to do the best version of the film that he wanted to do―is just incredible.

But one thing Blessy was acutely aware of is that you cannot make the entire book into a film. The book is narrated in micro-detail. And if you set out to make that entire narrative into a feature film, you would probably end up with a nine-hour film. We should also be aware of the fact that each person who read the book would have imagined his own world and his own Najeeb. So the effort and the idea was to make the audience feel what Najeeb must have felt in those days. So the dots are connected through his emotional arc, and that is what Blessy wanted to do and that is what he has spectacularly pulled off.

Q\ You underwent a significant physical transformation, and as a star who meticulously maintains your physique, did you ever find yourself questioning the toll the filming process took on your body?

A\ I said yes to this film back in 2008-09, and even then I knew that taking up this challenge involved going through this transformation…. I took it upon myself, and decided that I am going to do it, and I went all the way. But, of course, what was completely unanticipated was the pandemic and the fact that we had to postpone the shoot for almost a year and a half in between, which then meant that I had to go through the entire process of transformation twice. That was not easy at all. My doctors, trainers and nutritionist told me not to do it. But we were already neck deep in the film and we did not really have a choice. I am happy I was able to pull it off. I am happy my body responded to it twice.

Q\ You have a great vision for Malayalam cinema. With the release of The Goat Life, a mega movie with a worldwide audience, do you believe Malayalam cinema has finally claimed its place on the world stage?

A\ I don’t think it is a destination that you reach, put your legs up and relax. It is a constant journey; each time you hit a glass ceiling, something else comes around and you realise there is more to go. So when you say we have finally arrived, there is no place to be arriving at. Malayalam cinema still has a lot of potential and we are yet to discover a lot of untapped markets. We are yet to delve into churning out even more complex content; I think film lovers across the world are ready to be entertained by more complex content. And I am glad Malayalam cinema is leading the way in terms of making such films and coming up with good content.

Q\ Your father, Sukumaran, was known for his distinctive acting style, while your mother, Mallika Sukumaran, continues to be a prominent actor. When evaluating your own acting style, whose influence do you believe is more prominent in your acting?

A\ I think I am a very, very different kind of actor in comparison with my dad and mom. Let me let you into a secret―as actors, we are deeply narcissistic, so all of us believe we are the best in the world. It will be unfair asking me to judge myself. But I think as a filmmaker, because I have directed my mom, and have seen a lot of films with my dad, I am inclined to think and believe that as an actor I am quite different from both of them. They are both great actors. My dad was very good at what he used to do and my mom, I still think, is the most talented actor in the family.

Q\ Blessy, known for outstanding films like Thanmatra (2005) and Kaazhcha (2004), brings a wealth of industry experience to the table. But it has been a decade since his last feature film. As a prominent actor, was this a concern when committing to The Goat Life?

A\ Not at all. If anything, I am truly flattered that I am a part of a filmmaker’s vision behind which he threw 16 years of his life. And make no mistake, Blessy is not trying to make his first film. He is a National Award-winning filmmaker, and [doing] a Blessy film is a box that pretty much every actor in the Malayalam industry wants to tick off. [The fact that] he decided that he is going to spend a decade and a half into making his dream project and that I am the actor he wants is great.

Q\ I read that the crew encountered significant challenges, including a 70-day stint in the Jordanian desert from March to May 2020 because of Covid restrictions. And eventually you returned to India through the government’s Vande Bharat Mission. Could you elaborate on the obstacles and hardships faced in completing this ambitious project?

A\ Frankly, there were no hardships. I know the popular narrative here was that we were starving with no food and water, but we were in a wonderful desert camp in the middle of a spectacular terrain with a lot of food. We were playing cricket and all that. But, of course, what was worrying was that none of us knew when we could come back home. And there were rumours that it could take a year… so, of course, that played on all our minds. But, after the shoot stopped, the way the production house took care of the entire crew was truly commendable.