Edited excerpts from an interview between Sophia Paul, the producer of Minnal Murali and Vishal Menon:
When you think about it from Netflix’s perspective, they need to have had a certain confidence in Minnal Murali – to pick a good movie, whichever industry it may be from, to invest in it instead of spending double the amount on a Shah Rukh Khan or Rajnikanth film, market it and believe that it’ll have the same impact as any big film. Do you think Netflix had this kind of confidence in your film?
Sophia: With Minnal Murali, after the partnership with Netflix was in place, we didn’t know how they planned on promoting it. But we could tell them a lot of our ideas, about how we ordinarily go about promoting a film. Even when we first launched the teaser we did the maximum we could do. In discussions with Netflix, we’d tell them that this was a movie we wanted to promote, but even though we told them things, we didn’t know they themselves had such grand ideas in mind for Minnal Murali. Every idea of theirs was a great surprise. For a film like this, they would have understood its value. They wouldn’t do this for any ordinary film.
We were told that safter Sacred Games, Minnal Murali was the first Netflix film to premiere at the Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival. All that brought us a lot of happiness because it was a proud moment for our whole crew. To go there, take part in the event, sit and watch our movie with everyone. To promote a Malayalam film to this level, Netflix must’ve had that trust in it. Once they saw and liked it, they knew what kind of a film this was and that it demands the attention.
As a producer, when you plan for a big budget pan-Indian film, you’d know what safety measures are usually taken by the production. In casting, supporting characters will be brought in from different industries. But when it comes to Minnal Murali, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Instead of having a superstar from another industry in the film, all the money has been spent on filmmaking itself, right? Other than the action director, there seems to be nobody from outside. That was completely your decision, right? What was the logic behind taking a risk like that?
Sophia: From the beginning we felt that Tovino should play the superhero character. We didn’t have options apart from him. For the villain’s character, we had several options. We thought of many people from other languages. But Basil is the one who suggested Guru Somasundaram for the role. We wanted Guru because Basil really liked the film Joker. He told me “Ma’am, you will understand this decision when the film is over.” And he was right! Basil’s decision was correct. When we began shooting, we were so happy seeing every scene of Guru’s.
In terms of art direction, we had Manu Jagath who worked on Baahubali and Sameer Thahir on cinematography. So we had a good team. For the things that required people from outside, we sought help. For the superhero fights we definitely wanted someone from outside. The costume was an element. It was designed by Pavi Sankar and we got Deepali Noor to make it. It was only for action sequences that we thought we should bring people from outside. VFX too was a priority. Even though Andrew Jacob was the visual effects supervisor and his team did a lot of work, we also employed companies like Lorven Studios to achieve what we wanted. Top companies in India were involved in this project.
It’s a Malayalam film, so we had a budget to keep in mind. I think we contained it in a manner that made the film as good as possible. Like I said, this is an experiment. If it turns out good we can think bigger. If a good film comes along now then maybe with an even bigger budget we can work on it. This movie is an example. Minnal Murali’s success has confirmed that films can also be made like this in Malayalam. It was a big challenge for the production house.
In our industry, we have female directors with their own stardom, there are female superstars as well. But it is only now that we finally have a sense of active female producers. Take your case, this is your third blockbuster film. Firstly, why did it take so long for our industry to have female producers? Secondly, have you had to face specific challenges as a female producer?
Sophia: If you ask me why it took so long, I don’t know. Actually, nobody has said that women shouldn’t get involved. Anybody can come in at any time and do movie production. In my family, we’re all people who love movies. Even in Dubai, my husband Paul and I do business together. So this is just another business we do because of our love for cinema. That is how I got into production.
Movie production is an area I like a lot. We work with a lot of people, we make them comfortable. There’s freedom on both sides to have open discussions. It’s never been the case that since I’m a lady, I cannot say something. There’s nothing like that. So far I haven’t found it difficult to be a producer. Everyone asks me this question and I’m surprised when they ask it. They give me the respect a producer deserves and I too treat them with respect. I haven’t had a negative experience or anything.
Everyone at home is crazy about film, both my kids especially. We read the script as a family. Even when we listen to a story we all sit down together when a writer comes to narrate the story. Then we discuss it together. It’s compulsory that all of us have read the script. It should be a film all of us like. We are also ordinary audiences; we see films and give our opinions. So we always try to do films everyone likes.
Minnal Murali has a deal in place with Netflix now. But when it comes to other aspects of the film — the creative elements, characters, the intellectual property and franchise ownership — is it still yours?
Sophia: Yes, yes. The film’s merchandising and other elements are all ours.
Can I ask why you haven’t begun merchandising yet?
Sophia: Actually, we have come out with Minnal Murali t-shirts. Now we’ve launched a game on the playstore as well. There’s planning underway for each new thing now.
How do you go about planning the film now? Not on the creative side but in terms of it being a franchise. A sequel has already been confirmed by both you and Basil. Have you got ideas about how big you want it to be, whether we can create new superheroes out of it or things like that? Can we expect a small Marvel Universe of our own?
Sophia: Actually, there is a desire. The film definitely has the potential for a sequel. But we haven’t discussed anything about it yet. It hasn’t even been a week since Minnal Murali’s launch, it’ll be an early decision if I say something now. We’ll take our time with it. All of us need to sit together and think about it. People are waiting for a second part and we definitely want to do it. When the right time comes, we will make a return.
There’s some distance between you and Minnal Murali now. The film is out and you can finally relax. Looking back, what is the first memory that comes to mind when you think about Minnal Murali?
Sophia: Some years ago, I sat in Dubai and heard a one-liner about a movie that has finally come this far today. So for me, the moment I said I’d do the film, that is a big moment. Apart from that, I think it was destiny that led us to the location where we shot the climax. We were able to shoot it more beautifully. But I’m happiest about the moment I said yes and this project went forward. The credit goes to my kids, both of them were equally enthusiastic about doing this film. If it weren’t for them, I might not have done Minnal Murali. It is only because of their insistence that I went ahead.