Finally having been released on Netflix after facing a slew of hurdles including, but not restricted to, the COVID-19 lockdowns and a widely condemned act of vandalism, Basil Joseph's third directorial Minnal Murali – touted to be the first naadan superhero flick in Malayalam – does manage to live up to the expectations set by those humongous eleventh-hour promo campaigns. This is made even more impressive by the fact that the film itself has been mounted on a rather modest budget. Featuring Tovino Thomas as the eponymous superhero, the film also stars Guru Somasundaram in a show-stealing turn as the primary antagonist in addition to an eclectic ensemble of actors, both familiar and new.
At once both a superhero origin movie and a part of what is now called the "Basil-verse", Minnal Murali has those familiar genre tropes and narrative beats (especially for fans of Sam Raimi's Spider-Man films – Basil himself is one). These are deftly layered with the director's trademark whimsy and world-building – or more aptly, village-building. However, he, along with his team of writers (Arun Anirudhan & Justin Mathew), has opted to explore some dark themes too, thus laying strong emotional foundations for both the leads.
Set squarely in the fictional hamlet named Kurukkanmoola during the mid-to-late-90s, the film revolves around Jaison (Tovino), a tailor who aspires to emigrate to the States and amass wealth so that he can marry his college sweetheart, and Shibu (Guru), a social outcast working in a tea shop and nursing the wounds of a love long lost. Just as their lives have taken some unexpected turns, lightning strikes both of them. Neither gets burnt, let alone electrocuted. They start experiencing more weird things, discovering their superpowers. The rest of the film is about what they decide to do with those powers, and how their paths eventually intersect.
Part of what makes Minnal Murali a unique beast in its genre is the effort and care taken to establish its characters and their surroundings. In fact, it takes quite a while until the leads get to put on a major display of their powers, and with strong author-backed roles, both Tovino and Guru make the most of it to develop their characters into relatable and flawed people, going beyond the cliched black-vs-white duality. The supporting characters too – save for a few, like Jaison's dad – are painted with such interesting variations of grey that even the most benevolent of them may come across as morally prejudiced or compromised at one point or the other.
Debutant Vasisht – who has already attained stardom, thanks to the pre-release promo shorts – is both charming and funny as Jaison's comic book-nerd nephew who eventually becomes his "mentor". Femina, another debutant, plays "Bruce Lee" Biji, the local martial arts trainer and travel agent. Being a well-written (and performed) character not bogged down by the typical damsel-in-distress duties, one wishes she had been given some more screen time. Then there are the trio of cops played by Baiju, Aju Varghese and Rajesh Madhav who are on the dogged pursuit of this masked vigilante named Minnal Murali. While Baiju and Aju play the snobbish yet comedic jerks (the latter also being Jaison's spiteful brother-in-law), Rajesh plays the conspiracy theorist cop who works hard to establish a link between MM and all the possible terrorist outfits. TV actress Shelly plays Usha, a single mother, and the veteran comedian Harisree Ashokan plays her brother, both characters being crucial in Shibu's supervillain arc. And finally, there is the legendary Mamukkoya playing the hilariously zoned-out doctor who treats the lighting-stricken Jaison and is barely amused upon seeing that the guy hasn't even been scratched by the deadly bolt.
And then there's the setting itself. Besides being littered with easter eggs for those familiar with Basil's earlier films (Kunjiramayanam & Godha) as well as a few other classics, Kurukkanmoola village looks quite authentically alive, thanks to the impeccable production design (Manu Jagadh, a protégé of Sabu Cyril), complete with lived-in buildings and worn out structures. By setting the film in the 90s, an era when mobile phones were unheard of and surveillance tech was expensive, the makers cleverly restrict the means for the police to track down the identity of both the supers.
Cinematographer Sameer Thahir – himself an accomplished filmmaker – eschews the visual styles typical of the genre, and sticks to a rather grounded look and tone for the most part. Livingston Mathew, the editor, makes expert use of cross-cutting to make the viewer equally invested in the arcs of both the hero and the villain, gradually building the pace and intensity up through the course of the film. Barring a second or two of dodgy green screen work, the VFX and action departments (Hollywood-based Vlad Rimburg serves as the action director) serve the film well. The budgetary constraints do work wonders in that most of the action sequences employ practical effects and stunts. To be honest, the way an important set-piece ends is an inevitable genre cliché, but the events leading up to it are executed well, both on the creative and technical fronts. The film's sound design is flat-out bonkers (though let down a bit by the OTT release), befitting its seamlessly alternating narrative style. And last but not the least, the background score by Sushin Shyam (with influences from Ennio Morricone and R D Burman) and the perfectly placed songs by Shaan Rahman & Sushin Shyam manage to elevate the film even higher.
Of course, the stage is set for a sequel, and Sophia Paul has hinted at such a possibility as well. Here's hoping that one gets a theatrical release.