I must confess, when I first saw Basil Joseph's superhero film Minnal Murali (2021) on Netflix, I was among those who were left unimpressed. But unlike those who took issues with the film's portrayal of the equation between its "villain" Shibu (Guru Somasundaram) and the target of his love/obsession Usha (Shelly N Kumar), or those who couldn't digest the hype around what they saw as merely a silly fantasy flick, my viewing was affected by what I was anticipating. It is not that the film failed to meet my expectations. On the contrary, I was expecting Basil Joseph to make a spoof of the generic superhero film. After all, wasn't a superhero film in Malayalam set in Kerala always meant to be a spoof rather than the real stuff? Moreover, everything that Basil had done until then — the short films he has made, his first two feature films, and the characters he has played on screen — had set me up: we were not expected to take him seriously. So when the film came out, I played it on my laptop, plugged my earbuds in, and watched it on the side while going about doing the chores in the kitchen.
"We could not have made a small superhero film. It had to be big. But Malayalam cinema is a small industry with its constraints", said Basil Joseph in an interview with Film Companion's Anupama Chopra. Minnal Murali had to leave behind the longtime tendency in mainstream Malayalam cinema to pit its self-image against Bombay cinema, Hollywood, or the big budget Tamil-Telugu cinema — by imagining itself as a film culture that can't aspire for what the big industries set out to achieve in terms of form and commercial ambitions. The dramatic entry and the anticlimactic comic death of the Hollywood-type contract killer Pavanayi (played by Captain Raju) in Sathyan Anthikkad's Nadodikkattu (1987) typified this equation: "what works in the big film industries doesn't work here". The playing out of this impossibility by incorporating it in the narrative often constitutes Malayalam cinema's aesthetic repertoire, its self-image and business model. Embracing its provincial status has worked as an effective commercial and aesthetic strategy for Malayalam cinema. Minnal Murali breaks out of this tradition and endeavours to stage the grand moral conflict from within the regional, as though they are not mutually exclusive. The universal and the culturally specific seem to have struck a new equation in the film. Minnal Murali is no "jugaad" looking to exploit the tremendous political appeal that genres like parody and pastiche have achieved in contemporary culture and critical discourse. It is not another Malegaon Ka Superman (Faiza Ahmad Khan, 2012) or Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota (Vasan Bala, 2018). It did not try to evade the theme of the moral by valorising play.
If the film succeeds in committing to the genre and situating it in the local, it does so primarily through how it conceived the antagonist Shibu. The superhero film became a supersaturated genre because the place of "the chosen one" could only be occupied by the white man. Hollywood's response to this critique has been to replace the white man with a black superhero or a wonder woman — imaged as the white man's vision of a superhero from another race/gender. In contrast, by improvising on the origin story and by granting superpowers to two people simultaneously, Minnal Murali manages to ask a different question that resonates well with our times: what if anyone could get superpowers, and what if everyone has a good reason to use them in ways as he/she wants to? This conception of the origin myth departs from the logic of the search for the one ultimate universal saviour, but without giving up on the utopian desires that sustain the genre. We have debunked and critiqued the utopias we have imagined so far — from the idea of the modern nation to the dreams of global communism — for good reasons. But is it really possible to conceive of a coherent politics that does not institute at its core the desire to transcend the here and now, and to seek what has not been realised yet? We know that morals and ideals — the stuff of utopia — are constraints of our own making, but can a vision for progressive politics not be a moral one at the same time?
The following set of arguments is my hypothesis. First of all, since learning computer science and programming involves simulating models and systems using code/machine language, a training in its language can provide one with the insight that any arrangement of the world is just that: a construct, which could very well have been conceived and built differently by another set of people for a different purpose. While the Humanities student gains this insight through the tools of deconstruction, demystification and discourse analysis, the B.Tech student's learning begins with the lesson that languages construct models and systems in the image one wants them to be. They learn very early that structures are indeed discursively produced. This insight could be liberating as well as one that produces disillusionment, which could be why today's existentialists are not philosophers or poets but software engineers and computer nerds.
In addition, since the systems and models they engineer are meant to capture human behavioural patterns and habits through technological interfaces, their training gives them insights even into previously unknown facets about human psyche and collective consciousness. Computer science labs capture and experiment with the rhythms of life today. Computer science is also oriented towards solving problems, because it identifies every existing structure as constituting a problem which can be solved through algorithms, customisation, crowdsourcing, networking, proxies and optimisation. A computer science student works with domain–specific definitions for terms like "legacy" — used to refer to an outdated application, system or technology which however is difficult to replace because of its widespread use.
In what ways might such knowledge morph into subjective attitudes and visions about life, society and the world? For example, can any notion of politics come from how computer science and programming languages encourage one to approach worlds, systems and structures — like philosophy, literature and avant-garde cinema once shaped ideology critique by revealing structures and operations of power? Can a training in computer science and programming languages shape new notions about resistance and visions for social change? The tremendous influence that a film like The Matrix (1999, The Wachowskis) has had on imaginations of resistance in contemporary popular culture indicates two things simultaneously: (a) that resistance is increasingly imagined today from the perspective of the individual coder imaged as an outcast or rebel, and (b) that the coder-subject's self-image as the rebel against power and the mainstream shapes today's dominant culture as against all powers, structures and institutions. The film, thus, proposes a correlation between training in computer programming and a general awareness today about society as a contingent arrangement which could have been imagined differently. This can make available an instant and imaginary outsider-perspective — which can concur with a social outcast's experience and relation to the world, much like how Neo, after taking the red pill and becoming "woke" in The Matrix, instantly begins to identify with "the other" — the black rebel leader Morpheus and the woman hacker Trinity.
In Minnal Murali, this outsider subjectivity gets two expressions. One comes in the form of the innocence that Josemon (Vasisht Umesh), the protagonist Jaison's (Tovino Thomas) nephew, represents. Josemon is not just a constant source of inspiration for Jaison who harbours big ambitions without any real know-how; he is a nerd as well as someone who fosters in his head alternative imaginations about the world.
The outsider status that he embodies comes from his not yet being initiated fully into society and its norms. The second manifestation takes the form of the antagonist Shibu, a Tamil migrant labourer in a Kerala town, who, due to the constant reminders that he gets about his outcaste status, knows that his desire will always remain impossible and unrealised. The makers of the film had clearly anticipated the cross-identification that the netizens felt towards this character. They kept this character as a major surprise element in the film by taking care in promotional materials to not reveal anything about the film containing a second person attaining superpowers. Of course, questions remain. Is this cross-identification just imaginary rather than political? Did the film eventually do justice to Shibu's character? Wasn't Usha the real victim? The fact that many viewers started immortalising this onscreen couple on social media is itself an indication that a proper closure to the themes that the film manages to open up remains evasive. But Minnal Murali, despite being a superhero film, clearly does not stake the claim to know how to solve all our problems. Its achievement is in telling a story that pulls together people, experiences and landscapes, by working within the given conventions of a globally familiar format — thus by staying clear of the clutter of novelty, experimentation and aesthetic innovation.
Acknowledgements: I owe to Aparna Nandakumar the little I know about genres and superhero films. I have benefitted a lot from discussing the film, its reception and about B.Tech courses with Avaneeth Aravind who however refuses to fully endorse my hypothesis about the category of 'the B.Tech-er-turned-filmmaker'. The reading of The Matrix and the term "cross-identification" are borrowed from Wendy Hui Kyong Chun's Discriminating Data: Correlation, Neighbourhoods and the New Politics of Recognition (MIT Press, 2021).