Director: Basil Joseph
Cast: Tovino Thomas, Guru Somasundaram, Vasisht Umesh, Femina George, Aju Varghese
Mild spoilers ahead…
Basil Joseph, the director of Kunjiramayanam and Godha, was not bullshitting when he explained his vision for Minnal Murali as a film that worked independently, even without the superhero angle. The writing is layered and mature and it rarely needs the crutch of a superpower to stay with the viewer because it is, beneath the dazzle, a film about love and family. Like a well-made Pixar movie, it makes you feel like a child again without ever taking this child for granted. Even with our tired eyes bludgeoned by the bi-weekly CGI-fest, it gets you to fish out a word that was once a big part of our movie-watching. I think that word was ‘wonder.’
It’s able to create this feeling by taking a route most films with a big CG-budget would aggressively avoid. It knows that bigger doesn’t always mean better, so it chooses to use this tool to go deeper into an emotion rather than go broader for scale. This is also true because the film’s allegiance is first pledged towards its characters instead of the suits they are made to wear.
An example of this is the way the film develops two equally compelling origins stories for two equally compelling characters. On one side, we get Jaison’s (Tovino Thomas) whimsical little world and his strictly first-world problems (he wants to migrate to the US). This is the part of the film that accommodates everything you would need in a film that introduces the superhero to a new audience. The tone is charming and comical, the money shots are great fun and you get a fair share of the kind of visual storytelling that attracts you to such a film.
But it’s as though the film expects this to be a bit too basic for the already-Marvelised viewer and doubles down on another angle that will never get old. This is where the story and its telling finds harmony in a way that it becomes a lot more meaningful. Even when one story uses the superpower to give us what we want, it uses the other to give us much more. Take for instance the scenes where Shibu (Guru Somasundaram) discovers his powers. Most of the exposition is delegated to Jaison’s portions and this allows for Shibu’s strand to be used in service of his more human story. As a result, we get beautiful moments where he uses this power to relocate a man, simply to get a clearer view of his sweetheart; or the way he controls the wind to see her face the way he always wanted to see it.
A testament to Basil’s craft is how we never feel the tonal shifts, even when the film juggles between extreme emotions. Integrated into one unified universe, Minnal Murali is proof of how no one’s as good as Basil when it comes to world-building (Kurukanmoola gets its own number plates). This is obvious in the way he lifts seemingly ordinary scenes with the use of his signature Easter eggs. The town’s only auto-rickshaw is named Minnal (lightning) and their main bus is called Rakshakan (Saviour). For the sucker of 90’s nostalgia, we get Bombay Dyeing posters of Divya Bharti and pre-Lagaan Aamir along with cheeky references of Midhunam, Hitler, Basheer’s Aadu and actor Sudheesh in a hilarious cameo. This devotion to the period is everywhere, even in the way a thorthu mundu hung near the wash area strangely reminds one of weddings past.
But the film doesn’t dwell too long on such surface pleasures. The writing is so good in places that even Jaison’s story matures into a coming-of-age drama with its own motivations and struggles. Giving the film an almost mythical quality, the film is equally rewarding when it brings in the Legend of St George, seeds of which it had been planted early on.
And you are with Jaison through this journey because you’re always with Tovino. Until now, you’ve seen him excel in roles as either a strong man or the man-child in films like Mayanadhi, but in Minnal, he gets the full arc. It’s the trickiest part of the film, especially because there’s such a strong antagonist. But he’s able to hold it together, even when the film spends little time supporting this transformation. Even earlier, Tovino’s scenes with the boy playing his nephew are the film’s warmest, getting us to see the superhero universe with the kind of naïveté no new generation will ever understand.
Apart from the writing, credit must also go to the film’s DOP Sameer Thahir who seems to have recreated a film only Basil could have imagined. This is also why even situations you’ve seen before in similar films feel more like a tribute to the genre rather than imitations. In a fight scene set in a school that would make Edgar Wright proud, we get an ultra-cool stretch that has room for pure action ideas and for silly inserts of Jaison punching a cop on the backside in all the slo-mo glory.
What lifts the film even further is Guru Somasundaram as Shibu who gives you a supervillain you are rooting for even when you shouldn’t be. Through his performance, he gives you the kind of story one would never imagine in a superhero movie, presenting us with scenes that tear you up even in this fantastical universe.
As for kids having grown up with Malayalam movies and foreign superhero comics, Minnal Murali is finally a superhero who behaves and speaks just like us, without it having to feel like a compromise. It appeals to the part of you that made you fall in love with the characters in Tinkle, Amar Chitra Katha and Balarama, long before cable television changed all that. Let the Minnal Murali lunchboxes start rolling.