The Goat Life has an incredible story, ravishing visuals, handsome production values as well as a fiercely committed leading man. Blessy’s movie, dubbed into Hindi from the Malayalam-language Aadujeevitham and adapted from Malayalam writer Benyamin’s Goat Days, has everything going for it except the one factor that makes a survival drama tick: a compelling central character.

The movie runs in the opposite direction from tales of individuals magically soaring over insurmountable hurdles. There is no attempt to soft-pedal the impossible circumstances in which Najeeb (Prithviraj Sukumaran) finds himself. Najeeb’s flight is presented as the challenge it is.

But The Goat Life runs too far from the underdog hero template, and not smoothly enough. Najeeb’s test of endurance tests the patience too. The 173-minute saga of sorrow in the land of sand undermines its achievements by choosing to be protracted rather than pointed.

Benyamin’s best-selling novel is based on the real-life Najeeb Muhammed, who was tricked into slaving away on a livestock farm in the Saudi Arabian desert for over three years. In Blessy’s screenplay, Najeeb’s fortitude – the point at which the narrative worm turns, however slowly and painfully – isn’t always apparent.

Najeeb gets separated from his co-traveller Hakeem (KR Gokul) soon after arriving in an unnamed Gulf country. Treated in a beastly manner by his boss (Talib) and condemned to tending to goats and camels in the remote desert, Najeeb too becomes animal-like in appearance and behaviour.

The Goat Life (2024). Courtesy Visual Romance.

Najeeb’s experience is leavened by memories of his wife Sainu (Amala Paul). Flashbacks reveal the coastal village that Najeeb has swapped for the desert. The contrast between lushness and aridity is never starker than in a sensuously filmed song composed by AR Rahman and revolving around Najeeb and Sainu. The song sequence is among the film’s standout passages, and one of the few times we get a measure of Najeeb’s personality.

Najeeb’s submissiveness that results from his abuse guards against a facile tale of triumph. Yet, his journey towards uprightness is strangely unmoving, punctuated as it is by frequent showers of weeping that threaten to irrigate the parched landscape.

The movie has few instances of the tactics displayed by survivors to overcome their servitude. Reduced to his most basic instincts, Najeeb reacts to rather than initiates events – a creative decision that perhaps suits the material but makes for punishing viewing.

The Goat Life (2024).

There are memorable scenes tucked into a miserablist narrative that over-emphasises the already apparent, including Najeeb’s relationship with the goats, the appearance of fellow sufferer Khadiri (Jimmy Jean-Louis), and the role played by Malayali immigrants in helping Najeeb. The film’s visual splendour often compensates for Najeeb’s one-note, snivelling-heavy characterisation.

His alienation is projected onto stunning vistas that are memorably lensed by cinematographer Sunil KS. Wide-screen compositions and top-angle shots give a very real sense of Najeeb’s loneliness.

Najeeb’s refusal to make peace with hostile terrain is perhaps the most tangible indication of his desire for freedom. The desert is an open-air, if picturesque, prison, whose allure escapes Najeeb but overwhelms the film’s makers.

Also read:

Prithviraj Sukumaran on what makes ‘The Goat Life’ special: ‘A deeply meditative character study’