The whole world wanted us to move on: Prithviraj Sukumaran

The actor talks about 'Aadujeevitham', the experience of living a 16-year-old dream, and more
Prithviraj Sukumaran in a still from 'Aadujeevitham'
Prithviraj Sukumaran in a still from 'Aadujeevitham'

KOCHI: The year was 2009. Prithviraj Sukumaran was shooting for 'Pokkiriraja' when director Blessy approached him to discuss the possibility of adapting a novel released the previous year. Benyamin’s 'Aadujeevitham' had by then started to make ripples in the Malayalam literary sphere. The actor was just 26 then — a bachelor heartthrob, starting to find his footing as a star.

Cut to 2018, Prithviraj is the father of a four-year-old. He has successfully established himself as a superstar, headlining some of the industry’s biggest hits and most daring experiments. He is also a producer harbouring directorial dreams.

After eight years of discussion, Blessy and Prithviraj finally manage to get Aadujeevitham rolling, but...

Then comes 2020, the year of Covid. Prithviraj has reduced close to 30kgs for his character and along with him, the entire team is in Jordan for the crucial desert schedule. A global pandemic is declared, forcing the world to shut down. Uncertainty, the project’s permanent companion, held the film’s production in its cold embrace for the next few months.

And now it’s 2024. Prithviraj wears multiple hats — actor, director, producer, distributor. He is collaborating with the who’s who of Indian cinema and his films are pushing beyond the traditional markets of the Malayalam industry. 'Aadujeevitham' has finally been released and as claimed by the makers, it is the fastest Rs 100-crore grosser from the language. So much has happened during these 16 years and yet, one thing remained constant — perseverance.

“I know people are now raving and celebrating the film, but during all these years of trying to make it a reality, we had to overcome tons of hurdles. During the first nine years of discussions, almost the whole world was pushing us to give up and move on. We persisted, but I still can’t take any credit. It’s all because of Blessy chettan. His conviction and determination did not allow him to let go of that vision. It’s an invaluable life lesson for me. So, 'Aadujeevitham', in its truest sense, is a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” says Prithviraj, as we discuss more about the film, some of its creative choices, and the challenges en route.

Excerpts

The first time you read the Aadujeevitham novel, you must have envisioned it in a certain way. Was it anything close to the film we see now?

It was. However, I have to admit that it was Blessy who gave me the book to read for the first time after the end of a meeting where he took me through his vision for the film. So, as I was reading, I was also subconsciously thinking about his imagination. I can proudly say that we have been able to execute it exactly how we originally envisioned it in 2009. At that time, it was almost impossible to pull off something of this scale and canvas in Malayalam.

When Blessy was narrating all these spectacle-heavy scenes then, like the ones with the vultures, snakes, and the desert storm, I asked him how we were going to shoot them. He didn’t have an answer, but he assured me that we would figure out a way. So, when we set out to do this, we only had the imagination, not the process. But over the years, we stuck to the imagination, discovered the process, and managed to execute it.

As a performer, there are numerous challenging scenes for you in the film, but was there a particular scene that was the hardest to crack?

Truth be told, all the emotional scenes were easy because they were well-defined and we all had a clear vision of it. For a completely different reason, I found the vulture scene very challenging. Obviously, we didn’t shoot it with the real vultures, unlike the ones with the snakes. We had the CG team on set to help me with the motion arc of the vultures, but it was still hard to conceive it. I had to imagine the vultures were attacking me and act accordingly. I’m assuming the Hollywood actors must be familiar with this technique, but it was a first for me.

Similarly, the sandstorm sequence was not easy to execute. We shot some of it in an original sandstorm, including the portion where Khadiri’s character has to lift me and run. The thundering sound and pain of the sand hitting the body stings harder than you can imagine.

In the novel, one of Najeeb’s biggest regrets is that he doesn’t have a photo of himself from that malnourished phase. While going through the rigorous physical transformation for the film, did such thoughts add more responsibility and push you further?

Definitely, right from the onset, we were conscious that the bare body scene should not be included just for the sake of a visual shock value. The withered physique is a screenplay instrument that helps the viewers realise the struggles this man has gone through.

When they witness such a drastic transformation, they would be able to imagine a lot more about Najeeb’s suffering than what we have shown in the film. That was the brief for me when I started reducing weight. I didn’t have a predetermined goal to achieve, I just thought I’d lose as much as I could. But I still never believed I could shed around 31kgs. I pushed myself way beyond what I thought was my limit.

‘I’ve pushed myself way beyond what I thought was my limit’ Physically, you must have been extremely weak while shooting that scene, but how was your mental state before it? Were you able to process what you were doing?

I was fasting for 72 hours and dehydrating myself for 48 hours before we shot that scene. We wanted to shoot it in a single day; mainly for two reasons — we were waiting for a particular light and it was a complicated movement, so Blessy didn’t want to make me go through it again. Since I hadn’t even had water for almost two days, I was famished when I came to the set. I was unable to even stand properly and focus, but on a subconscious level, I knew what I had to do. When I saw the footage two days later, I was surprised at myself.

With the introduction of de-ageing and other state-of-the-art technological advancements, do you think actors need to push to such levels of risk anymore?

I’m sure I won’t dare to do something like this again. But in the future, if some other actor gets an opportunity like this, I would still like to see them doing it the way I did it. We can resort to VFX and other technologies if we want, but will it be as good as this? I don’t think so. Many people asked why we didn’t shoot this film in a studio, but I can guarantee that it won’t feel the same as it is today.

We travelled to real deserts, shot in testing conditions, and captured organic interactions between humans and animals. You can now experience it from the big screen, but you can never recreate that in a simulated environment. We’re all people working with cutting-edge technology and know what we can tap into, but I can assure you that there will never be a point where technology can match what’s real. The greatest example of that is Christopher Nolan, who still believes in shooting everything in real.

Irrespective of the scale or the degree of challenges endured, survival dramas ultimately triumph through emotional resonance. With 'Aadujeevitham', some feel that the film doesn’t delve deep into the personal and the psychological layers because of its ambition to be an epic spectacle...

I completely respect that opinion. We’ve never claimed that we’ve made a perfect film. If someone feels that the film did not emotionally resonate the way they hoped it would, I completely respect their opinion. To each their own.

So, was it a deliberate choice to emphasise more on the spectacle part?

Not really, the film that we wanted to make based on the novel is what you’re seeing today. I’m sure another filmmaker would have had a different perspective. That’s the beauty of cinema, each person can have their own vision. So, someone saying the film didn’t work for them is as important as someone calling it the best film ever.

Similarly, the film doesn’t focus much on Najeeb’s bond with the goats, one of the most striking chapters in the novel. As a result, when he leaves the masara after bidding adieu to the animals, we are more relieved about his escape than feeling emotional about them parting ways. Were there discussions to establish their bond further?

One of our primary intentions was to ensure that the film was not longer than three hours. So, Blessy stitched together a narrative within that framework and tried to accommodate all that he could in the best possible way. This is the film we made and we are happy with the way it’s being received, but it doesn’t mean you can’t make a better film than this based on the novel.

You’ve spoken about how Najeeb is almost a part of your life now and his thoughts refusing to leave you. Has it ever come in the way of any of your other performances?

Now that you’ve seen the film, I think you’ll be in a better position to tell that. I’ve done quite a few films after finishing 'Aadujeevitham', and maybe the audience can tell me if they saw shades of Najeeb in any of my other portrayals. I haven’t been able to spot it, yet.

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