Up until recently, whether India could ever make Hollywood-like special effects-driven blockbusters, which also makes massive profits globally, was a big question. Telugu director SS Rajamouli answered it successfully with his Baahubali films, the quality and commercial success of which gave Indian filmmakers confidence that they, too, could roll out homegrown spectacles.
Now, Kerala has delivered India’s first great superhero movie. With Basil Joseph’s new Malayalam film Minnal Murali, streaming on Netflix, India has finally cracked the superhero formula.
Set in a semi-rural Kerala town, Minnal Murali follows Jaison (Tovino Thomas) who develops superpowers after getting struck by lightning. All is well until Jaison finds his nemesis in Selvan (Govind Somasundaram), another man in the town who was struck by lightning on the same night.
Before Minnal Murali, Indian excursions into the superhero genre had yielded middling results. From the embarrassingly tacky Krrish films from Bollywood to Mysskin’s 2012 Tamil film Mugamoodi, the major problem with Indian superhero cinema appeared to be our directors’ uneasiness in combining Indian mainstream cinema’s idiom with the logic of superhero films.
In Minnal Murali, director Basil Joseph, and his writers Arun Anirudhan and Justin Mathew, bypass this problem by not attempting to make their superhero story gritty but taking a tongue-in-cheek approach to the genre. This approach was previously seen just once in Indian superhero cinema.
In Remo D’Souza’s 2016 Bollywood film A Flying Jatt, Tiger Shroff may have been a superhero, but his strict mother would also have her son occasionally bring home groceries after fighting crime. Unfortunately, D’Souza abandoned the rooted charm of the story and went full Hollywood by bringing in a White villain, concerns about environmental pollution and so on.
Minnal Murali determinedly stays rooted through its 158-minute runtime. Despite having universally appealing themes for fantasy and superhero genre lovers, the Minnal Murali’s milieu and characters are always strictly local, which is the highlight of contemporary Malayalam cinema that has gained countrywide appreciation.
The semi-rural setting, where nobody’s aware of the concept of a superhero, gives Minnal Murali a fable-like quality. This fantasy is heightened by the absence of any clear sign of the time in which the film is set. There are no smartphones or mobile phones, and there is not even any television. Is the film set in as far back as the 1960s or 70s?
Whatever it may be, the decision to have a superhero story in a time and space enclosed from all markers of modernity is a superb idea. If this is a world where nobody can comprehend what a superhero is, and nobody has any connection with the world outside, quite naturally, the superhero saga becomes the town’s private, strange little joke. The writers consistently mine comedy out of this small-town setting, its eccentric characters, and the townspeople suspecting one another of being the costumed crusader.
Tovino Thomas, one of Malayalam cinema’s brightest young actors, plays Jaison with a giant heart and good cheer. Guru Somasundaram is impressive as the town’s social outcast who goes full Joker by the end. Thomas’s likability and Somasundaram’s menacing presence collide to produce a solid good-versus-evil story. Baiju Santhosh, as the town’s superintendent of police, and Femina George, as the local karate teacher, are entertaining.
Minnal Murali is a technical triumph at every turn. Sameer Thahir’s cinematography brings a carnivalesque tone to the story. Despite the long runtime, Livingston Mathew’s editing makes the film feel brisk and light. The songs by composers Shaan Rahman and Sushin Shyam are fabulous, particularly the title track. The special effects, art direction, and production design are on point. Minnal Murali has the capacity to not just spawn a franchise, but perhaps even become an international hit.
Director: Basil Joseph
Cast: Tovino Thomas, Guru Somasundaram