Guru Somasundaram grew up in Madurai in the 1980s. Back then, Guru says, the city had about eighty theatres in a short radius. Hot Tamil attractions jostled with Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Ten Commandments, Rocky, Octopussy, Licence to Kill. Guru watched them all, first as a young boy cutting classes, then as an aspiring theatre actor. His Bond obsession continued in the Pierce Brosnan age, with one vicious image particularly sticking out. “In Die Another Day (2002), Bond explodes a suitcase full of diamonds, disfiguring the villain. Months later, the villain reappears with diamonds studded to his face…” It’s a poignant memory, for Guru has now played a supervillain himself. In Minnal Murali, Basil Joseph’s exuberant Malayalam superhero film, Guru is Shibu, the crazed antagonist who clashes with local hero Jaison (Tovino Thomas).
Shibu, an immigrant with a history of mental illness, is deemed an outcast from the start. In fact, we barely notice him before both he and Jaison are struck by lightning and gain superpowers. The element of surprise pays off well. What’s more, unlike other superbaddies, Shibu isn’t vying for world domination or ecological chaos. All he wants, and dangerously seeks, is love. “It haunted me how alienated Shibu is,” Guru says. “In my childhood, I faced domestic abuse and bullying in school. It shocked me to see these aspects reflected in my character.”
The film parallels Shibu’s journey with Jaison’s. They are both orphans, misfits. While Jaison recovers quickly from a recent heartbreak, Shibu persists. His childhood crush, Usha (Shelly Kishore), becomes an obsession that ultimately drives him to insanity and violence. Guru smiles at the suggestion that this is actually a film about jilted lovers. The ones who move on survive, even becoming superheroes in their own right. Others, like Shibu, don’t. “In Tamil, we have a saying that the actors perform one story, but the audience takes away fifty. It’s great that these layers to the film are coming out.”
Guru was kept away from the promos of Minnal Murali—a smart decision, since he is also its biggest surprise. Fans have responded strongly to his performance, especially the way he humanizes a character like Shibu. Even after he commits a murder and sets fire to Jaison’s tailoring shop, the film sticks with him emotionally. His farewell with Usha—set to Shaan Rahman’s ‘Uyire’—is tenderly tragic. The moment is echoed in Guru’s previous films, like the father and child hugging in Aaranya Kaandam (2011) or the flashbacks in Joker (2016). “I wanted to give a flavour of loneliness to Shibu,” Guru says. “If life had turned out differently, if he had the love and nurturing that Jaison gets, he would be a different person.”
In a cracker scene, Shibu is accosted outside a village tea shop. Policemen surround him on one side and a mob on the other. Suddenly, a brick hits him on the back of his head. Shibu turns and glares, a streak of desperation shooting through his eyes. “It’s when you see his anger turn towards the village people,” Guru enthuses. “Before that, he never thought of hurting them.”
Physicality, Guru agrees, is a key component in his craft. In Jigarthanda (2014), the funniest stretch is when his no-nonsense acting coach pops up, teaching hoodlums to mime and gibber. And there’s a brilliant shootout he aces in Vanjagar Ulagam (2018). For Minnal Murali, Guru fell back on his Koothu-P-Pattarai days, where he learned Silambam, Kalaripayattu, Tai chi and the Manipuri martial art Thang-Ta. A new thing, meanwhile, was mastering the kotta vanchis (bowl boats) in Kerala. “I had dedicated boat training for five days. In between breaks, I’d enjoy a ride along the river.”
Guru had worked with Jackie Shroff in Aaranya Kaandam. He has auditioned for Bollywood films over the years (“I’m still waiting…”). In 2014, Anurag Kashyap conducted a screenwriting workshop in Pondicherry. The director, who’d seen Aaranya Kaandam, spotted Guru in the crowd. “Anurag gave us an important advice,” recalls Guru, who writes and hopes to direct a feature film someday. “He told us never to make our dream project first. Instead, make a simple, affordable film in the beginning and show your talent.”
Acting, though, will always come first. Nothing delights him more than a visceral reaction to his roles. His first Malayalam appearance, for instance, was as a child molester in the anthology film 5 Sundarikal. “So many people told me they wanted to punch me after seeing it,” he laughs. Guru hits us with a zinger as we wrap up our chat. “Why has the circus not survived?” he asks, reflecting on the adaptive powers of cinema in a difficult time. A pause. A grin. “It’s because it has no story. Something with a story will never die.”