Review: ‘Aadujeevitham (The Goat Life),’ starring Prithviraj Sukumaran

April 1, 2024

by Carla Hay

Prithviraj Sukumaran in “Aadujeevitham (The Goat Life)” (Photo courtesy of Prithviraj Productions)

“Aadujeevitham (The Goat Life)”

Directed by Blessy

Malayalam, Hindi and Arabic with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in India and in Saudi Arabia, from 1993 to 1995, the dramatic film “Aadujeevitham (The Goat Life)” features a predominantly Asian cast of characters (with one black person) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A working-class man travels from India to Saudia Arabia, with the promise of finding temporary work, but he is instead kidnapped and forced to be an enslaved goat herder.

Culture Audience: “Aadujeevitham (The Goat Life)” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of Prithviraj Sukumaran and well-acted survival dramas and don’t mind watching three-hour movies that could have told the same story in two hours or less.

A scene from “Aadujeevitham (The Goat Life)” (Photo courtesy of Prithviraj Productions)

“Aadujeevitham (The Goat Life)”—an intense drama about an enslaved goat herder trapped in the Saudi Arabian desert—shows a lot of cruelty, desperation and hope. However, at nearly three hours, the movie is too long in telling this survival story. Some crucial details are missing, but the cinematography is stunning, and Prithviraj Sukumaran’s acting is above-average. Watching this movie is an endurance test that mostly succeeds in its intentions to be an inspirational story of human resilience.

Written and directed by Blessy, “Aadujeevitham (The Goat Life)” is based on Benyamin’s 2008 novel “Aadujeevitham,” which is inspired by the real-life story of Najeeb Muhammad, an Indian man who was enslaved in Saudia Arabia for three years as a goat herder. It’s the same story presented in the movie, but with some exaggerations for dramatic purposes. For example, there’s a massive sandstorm scene that requires a suspension of disbelief when it’s shown that the survivors who were caught in the thick of the sandstorm ended up having no serious injuries.

“Aadujeevitham (The Goat Life)” is told in non-chronological order, from 1993 to 1995. There are several flashbacks showing Najeeb (played by Sukumaran) remembering how happy his life was before he was kidnapped and enslaved. These memories help preserve his sanity and give him the motivation to escape any way that he can so that he can get back to his home in Kerala, India. Because the outcome of this story is so well-known, there’s not much suspense over whether or not Najeeb will survive. People familiar or unfamiliar with the story might still be curious to see how Najeeb makes it through his brutal ordeal in the movie.

A series of flashbacks and present-day scenes in “Aadujeevitham (The Goat Life)” show that before he was kidnapped and enslaved, Najeeb (who is in his late 30s) was living a lower-income but mostly contented personal life. He and his pregnant wife Sainu (played by Amala Paul) were living in the same household as Najeeb’s mother Ummah (played by Shobha Mohan), in peaceful and loving harmony. Sainu was far-enough along in her pregnancy for Sainu and her family to know that the unborn child is a boy.

A flashback shows that Najeeb’s personal life is going well, but he is struggling to find work. An acquaintance tells Najeeb that Najeeb that a laborer job in Saudi Arabia is recruiting Indians, who have to pay their own way to relocate to Saudi Arabia. (In real life, Muhammad was enticed to go to Saudia Arabia with the promise of being a salesperson at a grocery store.) Najeeb is initially skeptical because he doesn’t speak Arabic and he has only a fifth-grade education, which could affect his eligibility to get a work visa.

However, Najeeb is trusting and desperate for the salary that is supposedly being offered, so he takes out a mortgage on house to get the money to travel to Saudia Arabia. He plans to stay in Saudi Arabia only long enough to earn the money he needs and then return to India. His wife and mother are concerned about this risk, but they ultimately don’t ask a lot of questions, and they support Najeeb’s decision. A young man named Hakim (played by K. R. Gokul), who lives in the same area as Najeeb, travels with Najeeb for this same job opportunity.

What begins as an optimistic trip turns into a nightmarish trap. At the airport in Saudi Arabia, Najeeb and Hakim are approached by a man named Kafeel (played by Talib Al Balushi, also known as Talib), who says that he is their new employer. Najeeb and Hakim are ordered into the back of truck driven by Kafeel, who refuses to tell them where they are going and won’t let Najeeb and Hakim call their families. Najeeb and Hakim are assaulted and then separated from each other.

Najeeb soon finds out that Kafeel has kidnapped him and is forcing Najeeb to work as an unpaid goat herder in horrible conditions in the Saudi Arabian desert. Najeeb is frequently physically assaulted and starved during his enslavement. Najeeb is always being watched by Kafeel or one of Kafeel’s underlings, including Kafeel Jr. (played by Rik Aby), but Najeeb tries to escape a few times anyway. Najeeb is severely beaten when he is caught.

Most of “Aadujeevitham (The Goat Life)” shows Najeeb’s suffering. And many times, it becomes very repetitive. There is no voiceover narration that tells viewers what Najeeb’s inner thoughts are throughout the movie. It’s the correct creative decision for this film. By not hearing his inner thoughts, the movie puts an emphasis on the loneliness and isolation that Najeeb feels. This absence of inner-thought narration also leaves it open for viewers to speculate what Najeeb might be thinking.

However, because there isn’t much talking in the film, it leads to monotonous stretches where there are too many scenes of Najeeb trudging pathetically through the desert with not much happening to further the story along. Thanks to the impressive cinematography of Sunil K.S. and the emotion-stirring musical score of A.R. Rahman (the Oscar-winning composer of 2008’s “Slumdog Millionaire”), these filler scenes can maintain enough viewer interest, depending on how alert a viewer is when watching the movie. Some of the scenes are quite boring and can induce drowsiness.

Najeeb is compassionate to the goats he has to herd. And he gets somewhat emotionally attached to them as their caretaker. But he also knows that his freedom and going back home are his biggest concerns. Najeeb often feels helpless and trapped, because there is no one nearby who can help him. Najeeb’s family also doesn’t know where he is, since Kafeel has made sure that Najeeb does not have access to any outside communication.

A well-known part of this story (which isn’t spoiler information) is that after about two years in captivity, Najeeb gets a chance to escape when Kafeel leaves Najeeb alone and unsupervised because Kafeel will be out of the area for a few days to attend the wedding of Kafeel’s daughter. Najeeb is not only left alone, but he’s also left alone without being locked up anywhere. Considering how much Najeeb was under strict supervision and how Najeeb tried to escape before, it’s a lucky turn of events that would be hard to believe if it didn’t happen in real life.

However, “Aadujeevitham (The Goat Life)” bungles this suspenseful part of the movie by showing Najeeb leaving in a way that doesn’t look very believable. He takes time to say goodbye to the nearby goats, but he doesn’t think about taking any of the goats with him in case he needs food or liquids. In fact, all he does before he leaves is bathe himself with some water, change his clothes, and say goodbye to the goats. He’s not shown taking any food or water with him.

Considering that Najeeb has had plenty of time to think about what he would do if he had a chance to escape, the way it’s depicted in the movie looks fabricated for drama, just so Najeeb’s escape will be harder than it needed to be. During this part of the movie, Najeeb gets help from an African immigrant named Ibrahim Khadiri (played by Jimmy Jean-Louis), who experiences starvation and dehydration with Najeeb. The movie makes it look like Najeeb and Ibrahim did not have any liquids for at least four days and not only survived but were also able to still walk through the desert in blistering heat.

There’s a huge gap in logic, because anyone with basic knowledge of human biology knows that people can survive for several days without food but not without liquids. “Aadujeevitham (The Goat Life)” is not the movie to watch to get realistic information about how to survive in a desert for weeks with little to no food and water. At least the movie’s makeup and hairstyling are much more convincing in showing Najeeb’s physical transformation the longer he spends time trapped in the desert.

The ending of the film is somewhat abrupt and doesn’t quite have the payoff that many viewers might expect. And there’s almost nothing meaningful shown about the lives of people whom Najeeb meets in Saudi Arabia. Despite these very noticeable flaws in the movie, Sukumaran gives an emotionally credible performance that will keep viewers riveted for most of the story.

Most of the movie’s visual effects serve the story capably, but some of the visual effects are obviously fake. Although there’s a disclaimer saying that no humans or animals were harmed during the making of the movie, sensitive viewers should be warned that the movie has scenes of abuse and pain that might be too intense for some people to watch. At the very least, “Aadujeevitham (The Goat Life)” could result in more viewers reading the book on which the movie is based to get more of the story that might not be in the film.

Prithviraj Productions released “Aadujeevitham (The Goat Life)” in select U.S. cinemas and in India on March 28, 2024.

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