Director Basil Joseph finds a simple solution to the Indian superhero film. American superheroes fight in the city. It's their natural habitat and permanent refuge. Indian movies that try to recreate that in Chennai or Mumbai often come up short (here's looking at you, Krrish 3). Basil, directing a Malayalam superhero origin story and a true breakthrough for the genre in India, skips that bus. Instead, he heads straight to the village.
Kurukkanmoola is an actual village near Mananthavady in the Wayanad district of Kerala. It’s also the place where Minnal Murali - Basil's film about a tailor who gets struck by lightning and acquires superpower - is set. You can credit much of the film’s charm to its unique backdrop. For instance, the hero, Jaison (Tovino Thomas), never dives off a building at the start (he simply falls down a tree).
There's a training montage by the riverside, a chase sequence through lush paddy fields. Even if you know the beats, the setting keeps you enthralled.
A few days before the premiere of Minnal Murali on Netflix, Basil and Tovino sat down with us to discuss the film. They also spoke about its sequel and the emergence of Malayalam cinema on a world stage. Excerpts from a conversation…
The film gets a lot right about the superhero genre. When did you guys know you had the right script and the right intent?
Basil: Arun Anirudhan (co-writer of Minnal Murali with Justin Mathew) came to me with the idea of a village boy getting struck by lightning. I wasn't sure if I could pull it off on a modest budget. I didn't want the film to end up looking funny, in terms of action and VFX. It was 2-3 years of commitment. I was planning to do another movie then. But my wife convinced me to do this.
Tovino: I said yes instantly. It's a once in a lifetime opportunity for an actor to play a superhero. I'm a huge Superman fan myself. So when Basil narrated this to me, I knew he could do it. He'd already worked for a year with the writers on the final draft.
The film unfolds in a 90s village. How crucial was the time and place to the story?
Basil: I love creating imaginary landscapes. My last two films, Kunjiramayanam and Godha, were also set in a village. I want my films to have a comic book feeling. It’s a childhood thing, perhaps.
Tovino: We are both small-town boys. Basil was born in Sultan Bathery in Wayanad and I was born in Irinjalakuda in Thrissur. So we have seen life like that.
Jaison maintains his innocence long after getting powers in the film. Except for a flashback episode, there's no drastic change in his personality.
Tovino: When we decided to create an Indian superhero, we didn’t want him to look like a Western character. Even after getting struck by lightning, the physical and emotional transformation of my character is gradual. Though he gets superpowers, he uses them minimally. For instance, the back kick with the tiffin box. It’s the simplest superheroism someone can do.
What was the VFX budget for the film?
Tovino: 0.01 per cent of The Avengers (laughs).
Basil: It was quite minimal. The effects were done by Andrew Dcrus' Mindstein Studios in Kakkanad in Kochi. They'd worked on Godha, Virus and Kumbalangi Nights before. 90 per cent of the film is practical effects. There's a small scene where a bidi starts shivering on a table.
We kept an electromagnet under the table and a small magnet inside the cigarette. In the middle of the shot, we applied current to the electromagnet. The cigarette got confused and started fluctuating north and south.
The action must have been equally complex.
Tovino: Vlad Rimberg from Hollywood did our action choreography. For the climactic fight, we had to light up the entire 4-5 acres of land. It took 30 to 40 minutes for every shot. So instead of cutting, we took twenty takes in a row. I would deliver a punch, go to the next position, and fight again. I was breathless by the end of it. Elsewhere, like in the school anniversary fight, I had to do 35 takes for one shot.
A set of the film was vandalized by right-wing groups last year. There were also disruptions due to COVID-19. What kept you guys inspired through that phase?
Basil: It was quite stressful, mentally. We were all over the news for some not-so-good reasons. There were two COVID waves in between. We knew it will be difficult from the start. But I was never alone. My producer (Sophia Paul), cinematographer (Sameer Thahir), art director (Manu Jagadh), editor (Livingston Mathew) and others stuck together as a team. We knew a film like Minnal Murali will change our lives forever.
It was a big year for Malayalam movies. So many of them (Nayattu, Joji, The Great Indian Kitchen) broke out nationally and internationally.
Tovino: Malayalis watch movies from all over the world. They are film fanatics. You cannot take such an audience for granted. We’ve made good movies from the beginning in Kerala. But the arrival of streaming has helped bring these films to a wider audience. I would never blame non-Keralites for not watching Malayalam movies before. Our films were only released outside for the Malayali diaspora. There was no dubbing in multiple languages. However, with streaming, that trend has changed.
A sequel to Minnal Murali has been greenlit. Where is our crusader headed next - Kochi, Mumbai, New York?
Basil: He has to move out of Kurukkanmoola definitely. That's for sure. There have been crossover requests from fans with other superheroes. I would love to do that, but those makers have to be interested.