Image Credit: Netflix
Basil Joseph’s filmography has placed grave emphasis on life in the rural village with all its tongue-in-cheek humour and heart. His first cinematic venture, Kunjiramayanam (2015), is an absurd comedy that plays on the idea of trivial curses that fall upon the village of Desham, terrorising its residents. His second film, Godha (2017), is a sports comedy set in the backdrop of a village where locals are divided on the modernisation of sports practices, with the specific debate being between cricket and gatta gusthi. In both of these productions, the rural village plays a key role in producing humour and relatability for audiences. It was because of this understanding of his filmography that Joseph's decision to make a Superhero movie in a rural setting came as a surprise to many. The over-the-top events and paranormal world that the genre demands are anything but what Joseph has tried to emulate in his previous productions. However, for Joseph, it was crucial that he tell the tale of a hero his people could recognise, look up to and call their own. In doing so, he attempted to build upon a story broadly framed on the naturalist elements of Malayalam cinema and implemented tropes of the superhero genre to it into it as opposed to the other way around. Thus, he created south India’s first superhero film, Minnal Murali (2021). This article is about Joseph’s grounded take on this extravagant genre and how he firmly roots characters and action, humanising the superhuman.
Set in the 1990s, Minnal Murali follows the lives of Jaison and Shibu, who become the superhero and supervillain respectively, and the comical mishaps that happen in the village of Kurukkanmoola. The film’s village setting is completely alien to the concept of superheroes or superpowers. They would rather know whether Chithrahaar would be telecasted than listen to a scientist explain the ‘triangular planetary alignment that happens once every 700 years and how it results in powerful lightning and thunder’. The only child who seems to be interested in the world of superheroes speculates that Batman came into being because someone whacked him with a cricket bat, using the logic of how Spiderman came into fruition.
It is amongst the simple lives of these villagers that two lightning strikes create a pair of superhumans; one good and one evil. When Jaison and Shibu are electrocuted, they gain powers that open a wide array of opportunities and possibilities not readily available to the commoners of Kurukkanmoola. However, as opposed to completely turning the lives of the villagers upside down with two Gods among men clashing against each other on cliche grounds of good vs evil, Joseph’s Minnal Murali is about the humane side of these superhuman ventures. It is about how one comes to terms with the ability to be more than human and the intense moral dilemma one faces in how this power should be used.
For budgetary reference, Minnal Murali‘s production cost was 2.5 million USD whereas the first movie of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Iron Man (2008), cost 140 million USD. American superheroes fight crime in cities and neutralise those posing a threat to the world. They have fancy costumes and for the most part, are loved by people around them, beyond their masked selves. In Minna Murali, Jaison fights crime in a village wearing a Mundu and flip flops to protect those that previously belittled him. He dashes through paddy fields, climbs up trees to test if he can fly and fails miserably, trains to see if he has telekinesis abilities on riversides, all opposed to the metropolitan setting of most superhero films. He’s a normal man who squints during blood tests, cries alone in the toilet after being dumped by a girl, tries to win prizes at the local fair, and gets excited about magic shows. More than budgetary constraints that may have played a role in the lack of excessive spectacle that the superhero genre demands, the aforementioned qualities that ground his hero and add relatability to the world may have been what Joseph valued more, and certainly distinguishes his take on the genre from the rest.
The film could have stripped away all its superhero elements and still be an engaging social drama with a plot focused on the redemption of those that society considers outlaws and failures. It has a genuine story to tell and like all of Joseph’s previous productions, the village and its people have a key role in setting the film’s tone and plot progression. Joseph makes his audience spend time with the villagers gossiping in tea shops and backbiting about each other. The environment he creates is close-knit, where everyone is aware of each one's perception of the other, but enjoy this coexistence nonetheless. He uses the police, emblems of law and order, for comedic purposes while also making them vile and unlikeable. We are shown how villagers are excited to see Jaison get beaten by the Superintendent, Saajan, and gather together to witness the same. After getting hit by lightning, the villagers scramble to take Jaison to the hospital while simultaneously relaying the information to onlookers who have no connection to the event whatsoever. It shows how fluidly information flows through the village and at the same time, how tight-knit, albeit loose-lipped, the villagers are.
Understanding Jaison and Shibu as individuals is fundamental to understanding the humanity Joseph tries to bring to his film. Jaison is a naive self-centred individual dreaming of travelling to America in hope of finding success but has no idea what America is like. An example is when his nephew tells him about the superheroes in America “because of whom America survives”, to which he sheepishly replies that he will meet and join forces with them. He wears t-shirts with Abibas, Poma and Lowcoste written on them under the impression that they are what people of fashion wear, revealing his innate desire to modernise when in fact they are obvious counterfeits. He even claims Adidas is a counterfeit of “Abibas”. This shows his obsession with wanting to move to the States, but equally how flawed and deluded he is. The locals recognise this and mock his clothing, the police vehemently foil his plans to travel to America and the only time the villagers come to his aid, they seem to be disappointed that Jaison hasn’t sustained any serious injuries. Jaison in turn recognises this and, when questioned on whether he cares about anything but himself, he outrightly states that he doesn't care about what happens to the rest of the village as they are never concerned about him.
On similar grounds, while Shibu does not use his power for pointless violence, his desire to have a life with Usha leads him to commit selfish acts of robbery and murder, and even frames his crimes on Minnal Murali. He does not wish to hurt anyone but is ignorant to the suffering of others when his only desire for Usha is threatened. It has to be contextualised that Shibu’s life was one of suffering and pain and Usha was his only ray of hope in a world predominantly dark and meaningless. However, as the story progresses, indifferent to Shibu, Jaison gradually recognises, in friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man fashion, that “with great power comes great responsibility”. He conforms to using his powers for the people who once despised him because he is reminded, in true Superhero flashback fashion, of the act done by his mortal father, when he saved many of those trapped under a burning theatre stage. He recognises how a mere human could become a hero and if so, he who has superpowers should do better. Thus Minnal Murali becomes a story of growth and decline where two individuals fight for love but unfortunately one becomes a victim to circumstance. The difference is, Jaison chose the village that belittled him over Shibu, and Shibu chose Usha over the village that belittled him.
Editor's Note: Minnal Murali is available to stream on Netflix worldwide