Saturday, April 13, 2024

“Aadujeevitham”: Fails in its adaptation, survives on visual grandeur and built-up anticipation

As a Tamilian, it always awes me to see two Malayalees strike a chord with the question “Naatil Evideya?”. I was told by a friend an annoying number of times that the affinity Malayalees share at present has a history of Malayalee migrants in the Gulf helping each other during hardships. Not a single conversation with my Malayalee friends about Gulf goes without discussing Aadujeevitham (Goat Days), a renowned Petro-diasporic novel written in Malayalam by Benyamin (Benny Daniel) and translated into English by Prof. Joseph Koyipally.

It has occurred to me that the Malayalee imagination of Aadujeevitham largely looks at the story of Najeeb as an expatriate’s struggle in the Gulf. In the mainstream discourse, the story does not give enough merit to the unwavering faith in Allah shown by Najeeb. Najeeb is read as a character who never loses hope, but hardly one discusses the idea of hope in the story as engendered from Najeeb’s belief in an omnipotent God; to universalise Najeeb’s Iman as hope is restricting. 

Aadujeevitham is the story of Najeeb Muhammad who travels to Saudi Arabia from Kerala via Bombay. He is accompanied by a youngster named Hakeem from his neighbourhood. Najeeb’s travel to Saudi for financial prospects is met with the harsh realities of Gulf life and its hostile climate. He is illegally taken by an Arab man to work in his masara (goat pen) in the middle of an unending desert. After three years of subjection to dehumanisation, Najeeb and his accomplices Hakeem and Ibrahim Khadiri escape from their respective masara. 

The novel was published in Malayalam in the year 2008 and the movie Aadujeevitham has been in production since 2009. The movie starring Prithviraj Sukumaran as Najeeb, directed by Blessy hit the theatres on 28 March 2024. Several major aspects of the novel occupy very little space in the movie. At the outset, the idea of alienation from the homeland that Najeeb faces in the film is captured through memories of his wife Sainu and water bodies. The movie doesn’t expand on the relationship that Najeeb shares with the goats and does not justify the movie title The Goat Life.

The director of the movie, Blessy, expressed in one of his interviews that the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) did not approve a scene where Najeeb is subtly implied to have had intercourse with a goat named after his childhood crush ‘Marymaimuna’. Even so, the movie had the potential to show Najeeb’s excruciating existence akin to the goats, but it fails to do so except in one frame where Prithviraj is shown drinking water from the same tank as the goats just before the intermission. 

Najeeb’s nostalgia for his homeland in the novel is vicariously felt through the goats as he names them after people back home and public figures like Sainu, Nabeel, Pochakkari Ramani, Aravu Ravuthar, Jagathy, EMS, Mohanlal, etc. Najeeb’s aversion to eating mutton in the Sumesi prison plays a vital role in establishing his symbiotic relationship with the goats. The movie doesn’t make use of such important narratives from the book, rather Amala Paul as Sainu occupies Najeeb’s mind more which is why Najeeb bidding adieu to the masara before his escape in the movie feels instantaneous. 

The movie does try to establish Najeeb’s connection with the animals in frames where the animal gaze is captured or when a baby he-goat herds the rest of the goats with his small bleats as Najeeb stands bone-tired, but these scenes don’t have any conclusive effect on the audience. The frame in which Najeeb’s image is captured through the gaze of a camel feels gratuitous; a friend of mine who watched the movie with me jokingly said that “Ottagajeevitham” (The Camel Life) sounds more of an apt title for the film. The movie just doesn’t slip on Najeeb’s association with the goats but also with the arbab (saviour), the Arab man who owns the masara. 

Frames of Sunil K S captures Ibrahim Khadiri played by Hollywood actor Jimmy Jean-Louis in a transcendental manner that makes him appear like a prophet-like figure just as the novel alludes him to be. Ibrahim Khadiri is a Somalian worker who works in the same masara as Hakeem and acts as a god-sent figure in helping Hakeem and Najeeb escape their ill fate. However, the movie makes very little attempt to bring out the religious faith that the primary characters carry in a definite manner. In the novel, there’s an instance in which Najeeb is saved from a bullet shot at him because of the presence of a “fourth person” who is discerned to be Allah by the readers. In another instance from the book, Najeeb reminds himself that it is a sin to commit suicide in Islam and that’s one of the reasons for his survival in the desert. As much as Najeeb’s relationship with the goats is central to the story, so is his faith. Though the novel has captured the philosophical depth of his religion, it is not widely acknowledged. The movie attempts very little to capture that philosophical depth and the Iman of the central characters are fed to the audience as universalized Hope. It is problematic concerning the appropriation of Islamic narratives by liberal language use. A strong Islamic critique of both the novel and the movie might open up new discourses. One is allowed creative freedom in adaptation, but not making allowance for the conscience of the novel does not mean a creative exploration but a wasteful endeavour.

Narration-wise, the movie lacks in terms of to whom and why the story is told, unlike the novel where Najeeb experiences catharsis as he narrates the story to his fellow prisoners. If the movie had imagined Najeeb or an omniscient narrator recounting his experience to a certain audience, it could have possibly covered important aspects of the novel that the film could otherwise not offer visually. The audience does not feel the momentum building up to a mitigating climax when the “Malabar Restaurant” sign shows up mostly because of its adaptive failure of the story. 

Cinematographer Sunil K S and editor A. Sreekar Prasad compensate for the heedless adaptation. The alienation Najeeb faces in terms of water is captured succinctly in the movie. Ranjith Ambady as makeup artist and Stephy Zaviour as costume designer have done an impressive work in showing case the desiccated bodies of Najeeb, Hakeem and Ibrahim Khadiri as they make their escape through the desert. Prithviraj as Najeeb and K.R. Gokul as Hakeem leave an impact with their acting prowess. It does pinch one’s heart to see Prithviraj’s enervated physique and stutters that reveal his loss of language. The song Periyone Rahmane interflows naturally with the visual sequences in which it is used. However, the background score fails to blend well with the sublimity of the desertscape. 

The movie does not use its fullest potential as an adaptation of the novel and survives mostly on its visual grandeur, acting, and the anticipation it has built up among the audience while stuck in production hell. Aadujeevitham may have seen great success at the box office, but Manjummel Boys won the hearts of the audience as a survival drama of recent times.

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