No other Malayalam movie teaser has garnered the kind of hype and positivity the way Minnal Murali's has. Within weeks, it has already touched three million views and parts of the teaser have successfully crossed over to the world of memes. More than anything, this Tovino Thomas-starrer brings back renewed excitement to watch a film in the theatre again, whenever it is allowed to reopen. A week after the teaser released to countrywide appreciation, its director Basil Joseph explains the detail that went into Malayalam cinema's first proper superhero film. Excerpts:
This is the first superhero film in Malayalam. When you do science fiction or a time machine-related concept in an industry that is new to this genre, do you have to make a conscious effort to simplify things? Or, did the fact that the audience is exposed to superhero films from other industries give you the confidence to say the story the way you wanted to?
I don't feel it would be wise to make the film with that confidence. Audiences are exposed to Marvel and Avengers films but that doesn't make it easier for us to try out similar films. Our film culture is far better than many others. We can never underestimate the audience and they are far superior than we think.
Our movie should be convincing or it will simply be a mediocre attempt. The audiences here are far more logical as well. Just because Marvel has worked, it isn't necessary for a similar theme to work when we do it. And that was the most difficult task for us — to make a film that is convincing to the audience, in a setting that is rooted and grounded. That was our primary focus. Rather than doing a superhero film with VFX extravaganza, we wanted it to be good cinema with superhero elements that would seem authentic. We didn't want it to seem like a wannabe attempt. The audience will start comparing this with Marvel films. They won't think about our limitations or budget. The only option we had was to make it genuine and authentic. Otherwise, there's no point in trying it. The idea was to simply make a film about a superhero who hails from your neighbourhood.
When we look at superhero/sci-fi films, even the ones which are made in India like Krrish or even 2.0, they are set in cities such as Kuala Lumpur, Mumbai or Chennai. Was it a conscious decision to not compete with bigger industries in scale and to root the film in a small village setting?
Yes, definitely. We will surely not be able to match these industries in terms of scale, because their budgets are way higher than what we can imagine. We wanted to get the audience to first connect with the basic human emotions in the story, before they got charmed by the superhero elements.
There are so many examples before us. My Dear Kuttichathan was an inspiration. At that time, it was a 3D fantasy and was done in a very convincing manner. There are documentaries based on its execution, which detail the artwork and groundwork that went into its making; it can surprise us even now. Seeing all that, one feels that it is 2020 and that we can now try such things.
And because the Malayalam industry is smaller with a limited budget, was the idea always to rely less on CGI and post-production effects and focus on real, man-made special effects for the stunts?
Definitely. People detach from the film when there is too much CG. The scene in the teaser where he kicks back the tiffin box to its position is a mix of practical effects and CG. All the scenes were planned and conceived in a similar way in the presence of the VFX supervisor, art director and cinematographer. It was only in scenes where we felt that nothing else would be possible that we resorted to 3D animation and VFX support.
When there is CG exaggeration, it will feel over the top. We need to help the audience grow and familiarise them with such concepts within our industry. In the U.S, audiences have been familiar with comic books and are very used to that culture. We haven't had such exposure other than with our mythologies and the limited scope of comics like Balarama or Mayavi in Malayalam where we've come across superpowers and superheroes. It is easier to adapt this onscreen when the story is based on legends and folklore and we have seen such films and serials too, but when it is about a real person getting a superpower, it should be rooted and grounded, especially when it's an origins story.
Generally, when an Indian character with a superpower gets written, a lot of reliance is placed on a magical event, an alien intervention or something fantastical. In contrast, in the west, the superpower is generally a result of a scientific experiment gone wrong or something along those lines. Did you have to take that call too for Minnal Murali?
I think it will be better to reveal that later. But it's not magic. We didn't want to rely too much on magic or fantasy. If something magical happens once, then it's okay to accept it, because you can think it's a coincidence. But when it has to keep happening, you need to place that in the truth of the film's world. The situations are meant to be in the realistic zone.
One of the best parts of the teaser was that you didn't reveal the costume. What were the practical challenges you faced when making the costume for a Malayali superhero?
This was the most difficult choice because we had too many restrictions where the costume should not be too Western and should be rooted in the film's world. It was trickier than writing the screenplay. It would have been very easy to come up with a Westernised costume but there were a lot of practical difficulties. We have some shoot left, and we're still facing difficulties because of that.
There's already a lot of talk about there being a 'Basil Cinematic Universe'. Kurrukanmoola, the fictional place where Minnal Murali is set in, was hinted right in your first film Kunjiramayam. This is again repeated in Godha as well. Were these Easter eggs a long-term plan?
Some of these are planned, not all. I've set all three of my films in fictional worlds and all of them have that comic book layer. They are standalone anyway, so I thought I would draw a link. I placed these Easter eggs within these films for my own amusement and fun. I didn't expect people to read so much into it. These signatures keep things interesting for us.