Minnal Murali does something that most superhero movies rarely do. When the general approach is to make the audience start caring for the hero first, Basil Joseph's film elects to do the same with the villain.
Like M Night Shyamalan did before them in Unbreakable, Basil and his writers Arun Anirudhan and Justin Mathew make it the villain's story as much as the hero's. The former, Shibu (Guru Somasundaram), is painted as a doomed romantic hero. He carries the spirit of Guru Dutt and Devadas in him.
But what impressed me the most about Somasundaram's portrayal is that it brought back the memory of that day when, as a kid, I watched Kamal Haasan's Guna on television for the first time, tears streaming down my face. (If you've seen both films, you'll get why I dropped this reference.) Yes, Somasundaram is that good. If you're concerned about the film's pan-Indian appeal, fret not. This character alone should guarantee the reach.
When Shibu and the hero, Jaison (Tovino Thomas), are hit by the same lightning bolt at once, their superpowers are not the only thing they have in common. Before we get a sense of what they can do with their newfound abilities - it's heartening to see them revel in the joy of discovery - the film grounds both characters in commonplace problems.
It makes them go through a lot, to the point of making us look at them as equals, not opposites. We root for both Shibu and Jaison until, of course, the former does something that we didn’t want him to.
And once we get to know Jaison better, we realise that he is ideal superhero material. But he is not idealistic in the way that Superman is. In order to become the destined saviour, he has to first even out some of his rough edges, like how Bruce Wayne did before he became Batman.
But it takes some time for Jaison to earn our trust. When we first meet him, he is not as endearing as he becomes later. He is not Tony Stark. But like Shibu, he too is driven by a desperate urge to be understood and loved. Isn't that relatable enough?
When we first meet Shibu, he has lost his worn-out purse that holds something of much significance - something that eventually births the film’s central conflict. Jaison and Shibu have lost someone dear to them, and they will lose another loved one soon.
When that happens, would they choose the path of evil or find a way to overcome their demons?
The initial impression we get of Shibu is that of a vagrant who lost his sanity at some point. The reasons, when revealed in due time, are emotionally overpowering. When the bad guy makes you feel sad for him even after he has committed an unspeakable act, that’s pure magic. The last supervillain that did that to me was Joaquin Phoenix's Joker.
Isn't it wonderful when we get a villain whose primary goal is not the usual world domination nonsense? But before we get to the dark side, Minnal Murali decides to have some fun while ensuring that we do too.
It may seem like the story of two individuals veering close to the breaking point is overshadowing the spectacle in Minnal Murali, but that's certainly not the case. It's just that the creators make the sensible choice of not rushing into the razzle-dazzle. It takes pleasure in developing little tension-inducing moments, like one brilliant confrontation scene that gives a clever twist to, I believe, the climax from Perumthachan.
The world of Minnal Murali is replete with delightfully entertaining characters and stunning period details that you don’t need action sequences to feel entertained. Because it takes a village to bring up/bring down a child, Minnal Murali would've felt grossly incomplete if it hadn't introduced us to all the characters that contributed to the hero's growth and the villain's downfall. But this is a Basil Joseph film, after all. Nobody in Malayalam cinema indulges in world-building the way he does.
Some of the notable characters are 'Bruce Lee' Biji (newcomer Femina George), Usha (Shelly Kishore), Jaison's nephew Josemon (Vasisht Umesh) and a host of quirky supporting actors that evoke some of Malayalis' favourite movie characters from the 80s and 90s.
Aju Varghese as Jaison's suspicious brother-in-law and Jude Anthany Joseph as Jaison's competition in the romance department get the lion's share of the laughs. I was also glad to see Harishree Ashokan in a strong character after a long time. He plays a major role in Jaison’s journey.
The creators also deserve credit for giving even the extras something to do, especially in moments where humour and action combine to splendid results. For instance, when Jaison makes his first grand appearance as 'Minnal Murali', a kid dressed as Gandhi suggests doing something 'violent', only to be met with reproach by his friend dressed as Nehru.
What genius writing! As in his previous films, Kunjiramayanam and Godha, Basil is remarkably cognisant of the appropriate time to tickle our ribs. He makes it clear very early on that he is not interested in doing a Saturday Night Live special. Minnal Murali is the real deal. When things get serious, it gets right down to business.
Creating a wholly original piece of work is no mean feat in this day and age, and Minnal Murali impresses with its ability to evade comparisons to superheroes from the West. Every department - music and photography in particular - deserves a giant pat on the back for making it possible.
The instantly addictive soundtrack - by Sushin Shyam and Shaan Rahman - carries the goodness of western retro hits. Samir Thahir’s neatly composed images feel like they leapt off a comicbook. In one striking moment of foreboding, a trio of crows observes Shibu, instantly recalling the three witches from Macbeth.
Another favourite image has Shibu framed against the backdrop of an illuminated Ferris wheel, suggesting, presumably, the halo of madness. Moments later, we see Jaison occupying the same space, but this time next to the wheel. Did he come close to going down the same path that Shibu did?
I was initially upset with the idea of enjoying the screener on my phone due to unforeseen circumstances, however, the immersive storytelling makes up for it. This film would look much better on a computer/laptop screen, at least.
Minnal Murali is, in my book, the best superhero film made in India by far, and I'm sure I'll be revisiting this multiple times, definitely on a bigger screen, next time.
Director: Basil Joseph
Cast: Tovino Thomas, Guru Somasundaram, Femina George, Shelly Kishore
Streaming on: Netflix