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Prithviraj Sukumaran on His Transformation for ‘The Goat Life,’ ‘Salaar,’ ‘Lucifer’ Sequels and ‘Bade Miyan Chote Miyan’ Franchise Plans (EXCLUSIVE)

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Indian cinema A-list actor-producer-director Prithviraj Sukumaran is extremely busy, with a hit film in theaters, another due this week and several more in the works.

Malayalam-language “Aadujeevitham” (“The Goat Life“), directed by Blessy (“Thanmatra”) is based on Benyamin’s bestselling 2008 novel of the same name and tells the true story of Najeeb, an immigrant laborer from Kerala forced into slavery on a remote goat farm in a Middle Eastern country. Sukumaran plays Najeeb. The film released over the Easter weekend and is a hit, with a $14 million gross so far. That makes it the sixth highest grossing Malayalam-language film of all time.

Production began in 2018 and principal photography took place over several schedules across Kerala, Jordan and Algeria. “I knew as an actor that this was a prerequisite, that to actually portray the entire character arc I’d have to go through this drastic physical transformation of losing a lot of weight and looking very emaciated,” Sukumaran told Variety. The actor increased his weight to 98 kilos for the Kerala part of the shoot and for the scenes where he first arrives in the Middle East. The production then paused for seven months while Sukumaran shed 31 kilos. “I surprised myself and everyone in the film crew, because when I landed up the next time in Jordan, I was almost unrecognizable,” Sukumaran said.

The actor did not bargain on COVID-19, which stalled the shoot immediately after a scene where his emaciated body is revealed, and the crew were stranded in locked-down Jordan for months. They eventually returned after a year and a half during which Sukumaran had to regain weight just to stay healthy. “But then I had to redo the whole thing. I didn’t count on having to do the whole weight loss transformation process two times, which I ended up having to do – because it’s a trap. Once you get to that level and you do a portion of the film, then it almost becomes like a thought process in your head. ‘No, I can’t let it go.’ I put in so much effort. I can’t let all that go to waste,” Sukumaran said.

“I know a lot of the [media] focus is on the physical transformation, but that is only a small part of the portrayal. At the very beginning I had thought of the entire arc. And I had told Blessy-sir that it is going to be impossible for me as an actor to look at it as one long, singular character,” Sukumaran said. The actor and director divided the character’s journey into a timeline of three weeks, three months and three years. “Once we had the idea and the timeline in mind, then it was up to me as an actor to interpret what would the mental, emotional journey be. Which is where we landed on this idea of helplessness, anger, and then coming to terms with the existence,” Sukumaran said. The plan is now for “The Goat Life” to take a shot at the Oscars.

Immediately up next for Sukumaran is Ali Abbas Zafar’s Bollywood action film “Bade Miyan Chote Miyan” where he plays the masked, gruff-voiced Kabir, the antagonist to Akshay Kumar and Tiger Shroff who play the titular Bade Miyan and Chote Miyan. “It’s pretty much planned to be a franchise if things go well. You look at James Bond or ‘Mission Impossible,’ in each film the actual story is the villain’s and then the hero comes to save the world. In ‘Bade Miyan Chote Miyan,” the crux of the film, the plot is actually Kabir’s story and because of that the character arc is beautiful. It’s a very complex character. It’s not your typical one-note bad guy. There is a past, there is a reason why he’s wearing the mask, why his voice is that way. It was a really fun character to play. And I don’t get offered to play these really cool bad guys very often,” Sukumaran said. “Bade Miyan Chote Miyan” releases this week during the Eid holiday frame.

Sukumaran made his directorial debut with 2019 hit “Lucifer,” starring Mohanlal, the first part of an action-thriller trilogy. He has completed 20% of the next part “L2: Empuraan,” with schedules across northern India, U.K. and U.S. Another India schedule will commence shortly, with a U.A.E. shoot to follow post summer. A 2025 release is planned.

Alongside Prabhas, Sukumaran led Prashanth Neel’s Telugu-language action film “Salaar: Part 1 – Ceasefire,” which was one of the biggest Indian hits of 2023. The sequel is underway, with the shoot due to commence in the next few days.”Prashanth has got a very efficient, really packed shooting plan in place. I will take time off between ‘Empuraan’ to go and finish a few sequences of ‘Salaar 2,’ but I am assuming definitely in 2025 it is releasing for sure. But when and how it’s up to Prashanth and [producers] Hombale Films,” Sukumaran said.

Sukumaran is currently wrapping Vipin Das’ Malayalam-language comedy “Guruvayoor Ambalanadayil,” produced by his own Prithviraj Productions. The Kerala-based Malayalam-language film industry, where Sukumaran hails from, is known for its efficient budgets and focus on story over spectacle and is consequently the toast of India. Three Malayalam films – “Manjummel Boys,” “Premalu” and “The Goat Life” (which scored a fifth place debut in the U.K.) – are in the top 10 highest grossing Indian films of 2024. Sukumaran attributes the success to the industry being blessed with a host of new-age filmmakers, writers, actors and producers who are adventurous in their approach to cinema and an audience responding to those aesthetics and also to the establishment of a distribution network that takes films beyond Kerala to the rest of the world.

“I hope we don’t lose sight of the fact that what originally made us so good is that we stuck to our strengths of saying original, real stories and within our own aesthetics, even when you look at mainstream commercial cinema of Malayalam,” Sukumaran said. “I hope this newfound success across territories do not put filmmakers to a zone of thinking ‘now we have to make cinema that will also cater to them,’ because the films that started catering to them in the first place are still Malayalam cinema. So, I hope we stick to what we know best and not let money affect our thinking.”