A landmark movie in the history of Malayalam cinema considering the reception it got, Minnal Murali has surely opened up a great avenue for the Malayalam film industry, which has never ventured much into the superhero genre. Thanks to the craftsmanship of director-actor Basil Joseph and his team, Minnal Murali has received positive reactions not only in India, but also from foreign countries, for telling a superhero story in a convincing manner.
In this interview, Basil Joseph talks about directing Minnal Murali, the difficulties he faced and his upcoming projects.
Did you make changes in the initial script to make it more visually appealing and budget friendly?
No, we had an idea about our budget and our limitations with VFX, so while writing the script itself we were aware about our constraints and we wrote the script keeping that in mind. But surely we haven’t compromised. I was involved in the script from the basic idea to the final draft. The screenwriters were young and passionate. They would come and stay with me at the locations of the movies which I was acting in during that time.
The writers were totally immersed in this project which helped us to fine-tune the script. We almost took one year to complete the script. It took us over six months to finalise the villain character. Even after six months of script work, we couldn’t conceptualise a villain character. Our basic idea was a man getting superpowers after being struck by lightning. Even after so much thought going into creating a villain character, we couldn’t create one mainly because we can’t create another fantasy element in the same setting. It won’t be convincing. After so much brainstorming, we got the idea of two people getting superpowers from the same lightning. Now, it may sound like a simple idea, but it was finalised after thinking about so many possibilities of a villain character which we weren’t convinced about. After we locked this idea, we finished the first draft of the script in two months.
How did you end up with Guru Somasundaram for the villain character? His performance has become a topic of discussion.
We thought of many options for the villain character. We thought of Malayalam actors, but we didn’t want a villain that’s predictable. If we cast a high profile actor in the role, there would be lot of expectations, or an element of predictability. Instead if we cast an actor who is brilliant yet keeps a low profile, people will be curious and we wanted that character to grow organically as the story develops. We didn’t want the actor’s off-screen fame to define the character. We had many suggestions for this character. We could have cast a big actor from some other industry and project the movie as a pan Indian project. However, we were sure that we wanted a character that grows big through the movie. It was one of our associates Shiva Prasad who suggested Somasundaram. We also thought about Attakathi Dinesh, but we have seen Somasundaram in movies like Jigarthanda, Aaranya Kaandam, Joker etc, so we could easily visualise Somasundaram as our villain character.
Even before the release, we kind of expected the appreciation for Somasundaram. Even while writing the script, we knew this character has a huge scope and will be received well by viewers. We never thought of changing the script and not killing the villain because the movie demanded a closure and the villain had to die.
Why do you always prefer fictional places for your movies?
I like the narrative style of comic books, the ones that starts with ‘once upon a time..’. For that kind of narrative, it is best to have an imaginary village. In Kunjiramayanam also, I felt it should be narrated in that kind of way, like a fairy tale or comic book. Coming to Godha, we initially thought of a town like Thallassery. But then we wanted a place with wrestling culture and a place which itself is a character. That’s how we placed that movie in a fictional village. For Minnal Murali also we first thought of telling the story in a place like Kuttanad and our superhero was a fisherman. But then again, we thought a fictional place would be better for the kind of narrative we wanted. And obviously, in a fictional setting, we don’t have to think about logical constraints. For example, in Minnal Murali, if it was set in a timeline where people are using mobile phones, the story can’t happen. Also, another advantage of a fictional place is that we have the creative freedom to create a whole new world. A place with our own number plates, our own news channel and so on.
Rumour mills suggest a second part of Minnal Murali and a franchise? How do you respond to that?
Surely, there are strong reasons to believe Minnal Murali can become a franchise. Discussions are happening but nothing has been confirmed yet to make an official announcement.
A lot of people must have told you that the movie should have been released in theatres. How hard was it for you and the crew to finally decide to release the movie on OTT?
It was a very hard decision to digest initially. It was heartbreaking to be honest. Everyone was devastated when we finally decided to sell the movie to Netflix. All the crew members, be it the cinematographer, art director, musicians, everyone who worked for the movie, thinking it will be a big theatre release. So we had to console ourselves first before comforting the crew members. It actually took months to accept the reality that the movie is going to OTT. We had no other choice that time, considering the concerns of the producer. We didn’t have an answer for when theatres would open, so it was a hard but justifiable reason to release the movie on OTT. But by releasing it on Netflix, the movie got a global reach. Many foreign critics reviewed the movie which was exciting to see.
Minnal Murali is a big success. It’s a landmark movie in the Malayalam film industry in many ways. Do you see a scope for superhero and fantasy movies in Mollywood after the success of Minnal Murali?
Everything works if you narrate the story convincingly. While I was making Minnal Murali, I had my parents in mind. I would recall how they would react seeing a superhero movie. Most Malayali audiences are not familiar with superhero movies, especially the older generation. So we need to build a story that is grounded and relatable to engage them from the beginning rather than trying to imitate Hollywood narrative. The older generation could never connect with something like Spiderman or Superman. So we need to slowly build the narrative for the audience so that they are interested in the movie even before the superhero elements could be introduced. Definitely with Minnal Murali’s success, more filmmakers would dare to make fantasy movies and there will be producers who will be willing to spend more money for such movies. That would change the landscape of Malayalam cinema.
Which were the most difficult scenes to execute in Minnal Murali?
The climax sequences undoubtedly were the most difficult portion to shoot. We needed a large area to shoot the climax sequences. So we shot those sequences in the outskirts of Karnataka. The challenging part was that a lot of locals came to watch the shooting which made it difficult for us to shoot, so we had to wait till late night for the crowd to disperse to resume shooting. Then the major challenge was the fog. We couldn’t see a thing during some nights because of the thick fog cover which delayed the shoot further. Also most of the climax sequences were shot in wide angles, so the lighting of the place and all was difficult. Assistant directors had to move from one part of the location to another in vehicles to coordinate the lighting. So the climax sequences were challenging in many ways.
The efforts of the VFX team have also been lauded.
The Minefield team headed by Andrews, Vishak and Arun were integral to the visual effects. For example, the scene where Minnal Murali runs through a paddy field was materialised through innovative ideas developed by the VFX team. We had to make that part convincing within the limitations we have with VFX and animation. But we researched and developed a new method to make it happen. We used a technology called magic carpet to make it happen. We used a ‘walkalator’ on wheels to get the fast movements for that portion. All these inputs were given by the VFX team. Not only the VFX team, artist Pavi Shankar drew the storyboard for the whole movie like a comic book. He used his imagination to make the storyboard look absolutely surreal and Samir Tahir used all his experience and skill set to transform that imaginative story board into visuals which was evident from the frames of the movie.
What are your upcoming projects?
I am acting in a couple of movies. The shooting of those are underway. Direction wise, I haven’t locked in on any subject as of now. I have some ideas, but I would have to sit on it and then take a decision. There will be a certain gap between Minnal Murali and my next directorial venture.