Edited excerpts from an interview between Basil Joseph and Baradwaj Rangan:
BR: When you sat down with your writers for Minnal Murali, you must have made a list of the things you did not want to do in this film. Can you tell us what you wanted to leave out of the genre which has come to be, I think, the biggest genre of all time?
Basil: The first thing we discussed is that we don’t want to make superhero movie for genre sake. We cannot just depend on VFX and stunts to grab the attention of the audience. We just wanted a good script. First, we wanted to sit down and write a good script, work on the characters, try to make it as grounded and real as possible. And then if we get the VFX and stunts done right, that’ll be an extra bonus for the movie. We have our limitations, restrictions on the budget, technical support and all those things. We have our own restrictions in terms of VFX and stunts too. So if we get that right, that would be a bonus. But other than that everything, should work perfectly fine as a movie.
We get easily carried away by Hollywood tropes and plot points and templates of the superhero movie. So the first thing we had to make sure was that it should connect to our parents as well. I imagined my parents watching this movie, and they’re not at all familiar with this genre. They haven’t even watched many English movies, so if they sit and watch Spiderman, they will never be able to understand anything. The first thing is that it’s a genre we’re trying for the first time, so it should be convincing to each and every one. And then if we can incorporate superhero elements into the movie. Make a good movie first and we’ll add the superhero elements later.
BR: That’s really what shows because for about an hour and a half, your movie looks almost like a drama taking place in a village. It looks like two people with a conflict. One of my favourite touches in your movie is when Shibu realises who Murali is and when Murali realises who Shibu is at almost the exact same time. They’re sitting in a chai shop and afterwards he says let’s go outside. And they’re standing and having this most casual discussion. That’s not what superheroes do. Here it’s just one man who is trying to convince another man — “listen, let me just get this girl, I’ll go away.”
Basil: We took our time to establish a lot of this in the initial part of the movie. It’s a fake story, it’s a lie, for sure, nobody will get superpowers from a lightning strike. But at some point somewhere the audience should feel that this is real and that this is happening. So we have to convince the audience. That’s the reason we took some time for the super-heroism to come into play. We cannot just go ahead and play with concept soon after the lightning with the superhero thinking its okay. They should have that organic growth inside them to become the superhero and the supervillain. Because we’re establishing a genre in an industry. Yes, we have audiences who watch superhero genres all across the world, but there are also audiences who are not used to those genres, there are also audiences who are not familiar with these things.
The only superhero movie which convinced us was My Dear Kuttichathan. It was a big inspiration for all of us, even for me as a kid. It was re-released in 1994 or something. I remember I went to the theatre to watch My Dear Kuttichathan. Because my father is a priest, I was never allowed to go to theatres. But this was one movie I was taken to the theatre for. I still remember standing in front of the poster of My Dear Kuttichathan and seeing the things coming onto us in 3D, the icecream and the chocolates. That was a big inspiration for us which we’ll never forget. That was the first fantasy film, something we were so influenced by as an audience. So we had that in mind but we are still in the earlier stages of such fantasy and sci-fi genre here. We had to make sure we convince the audience first, and then we’ll go on with super-heroism.
BR: Exactly like you said, one of the best things about the movie is how both of them, that is, Shibu and Jaison, first test their powers only inside their home or in a local environment. They’re not even planning to use it outside. They’re both just trying to get a handle on it, what this power is about, in a very local manner. What made you decide that I’m going to keep these superpowers private?
Basil: We had to make sure this was as relatable as possible. Jaison is a boy-next-door guy. He’s a charming young guy but he’s very immature and selfish, like any other guy. He has his own flaws as a character but is also a likeable guy. He’s trying his superpowers inside his home, inside his room. His sister knocks at the door and asks him what’s happening inside. She asks him to give back her utensils. These things are very relatable. Even if he’s a superhero, he’s afraid of his sister. That makes him more grounded. Later he’s afraid of the system, he runs away from the police. When he comes to know that his lungi has been taken by the police officer, he runs behind the police officer. He’s not acting like a superhero. He is a superhero, he’s super powerful, he can do anything. But fears and inhibitions make him more grounded and more relatable.
When Shibu realises that he’s got caught and his identity is revealed to the villagers, he tries to escape. He’s not trying to fight with the villagers. When he’s trying to escape he comes home and sees Usha there. So that makes him grounded too. He’s not trying to fight. His thought process is like that of a normal human being, making him more grounded, more humane.
We’ve seen in Spiderman, in the first part, he’s catching an apple and juice in a train. We had a similar thought process of doing it in a hospital where Jaison kicks the tiffin box on to the table. Those are little things, detailing that we’ve focused on to make sure the film looked more real, grounded and as relatable as possible. When his nephew asks him what his superpowers are, the first thing we show is Jaison trying to throw a stone at a mango. He’s not trying to fly, he’s not trying to punch. The first thing he’s trying to do is throw a stone at a mango. He’s like a normal human being, a normal guy like any of us, like me or our friends. Whoever gets a superpower might try to do all these things.
BR: Why did you begin the movie with a play and end it with the same imagery? Now this is an actual Greek tradition, right? They use an ex-machina where the god is lowered onto the stage by a machine. That’s where the phrase deus ex machina comes from. What made you see that god in that Greek way? Even in the end, when Minnal Murali kills Shibu, it continues that imagery. Can you explain that?
Basil: That was like a foreshadowing for what’s going to happen in the movie altogether. It’s just in a capsule version — the superhero fighting evil. St. George is a saint who is popular in Kerala but his roots are in Greece, so he has this costume with a cape and Greek costume. Even though he’s from the West, he’s been very popular in Kerala. There is no other saint who can replace St. George with the western outfit and western imagery, so we chose St. George also because he has that super-heroic image.
There are statues all over Kerala where St. George is sitting on a horse and killing the dragon with a spear. So, we had that image as the most convincing way of adapting a superhero into a village, with a cape and a Greek costume. It gives that western influence but it is very culturally rooted.
Jaison’s father used to do all these vigilante dramas where his character tried to help the poor, tried to save the oppressed. We had that imagery in the beginning and later St. George has been shown in different parts of the movie. When Jaison is entering, in his introduction shot, there is a boat named Saint (Punyalan).
In the end, Shibu is also acting like a dragon when he’s using fire. It’s all fire when Shibu turns evil. Shibu also takes the spear to attack Jaison from the actual St. George statue situated right in front of the church. And the church’s name is also St. George. Shibu grabs the spear and throws it at Jaison and Jaison grabs the spear and we return to the initial imagery of St. George in Pallikunnile Punyalan where he’s trying to kill the evil. We end up with Jaison holding the spear and killing the dragon. We tried to use this metaphor throughout the movie to have this connection of superheroism. Even a ninety-year-old will be able to connect the cape to the concept of a superhero with the St. George imagery.