A Malayalam superhero film has to be grounded in our culture: Tovino on Minnal Murali

Tovino talks about playing the superhero, his views on pan-Indian cinema, the reactions of his kids to ’Minnal Murali’, and how the team Malayali-fied this genre that has been popularised by Hollywood.
Tovino Thomas
Tovino Thomas
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Tovino Thomas is in high spirits. His superhero film Minnal Mural is releasing on Netflix on December 24 and has already generated rave reviews from those who have watched the screener. Known for his versatile roles, Tovino has established himself as a bankable star who loves to experiment. From playing an adulterous husband to a violent, chain-smoking brute, the audience has seen Tovino in many avatars. But the promos of Minnal Murali bring us yet another Tovino; a naive young man who discovers superhuman powers.

Directed by Basil Joseph, Minnal Murali promises to be a fun entertainer that will push the boundaries for Malayalam cinema some more. In a light-hearted conversation with TNM, Tovino talks about playing the superhero, his views on pan-Indian cinema, the reactions of his kids to Minnal Murali, and how the team Malayali-fied this genre that has been popularised by Hollywood.

We’ve been seeing some really fun promos for Minnal Murali, including the Great Khali video. How did that shoot happen?

There is one more promo to come, one with Yuvraj Singh. The three promos were shot by Vasan Bala. He’s adipoli. This is the first time that I’m working with him. I really liked Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota. I felt very comfortable working with him, it was just like working with our Malayalam directors. He gives a lot of scope for improvisations. He’s one of those directors who will laugh openly when you crack a joke on the sets. For someone who is attempting to do a comedy, that is encouraging. Swapnil (who shot Newton) was the cinematographer and he too would laugh out loud. It’s when you see their response that you get confidence that whatever you’re doing is working. It was a lot of fun shooting this with the Netflix crew. Vashisht acted with me in this. He’s a really good actor, and I had a lot of give and take options with him. I’d give him a suggestion and he’d happily say, “Okay mamey!” We are quite close and this rapport helped with doing improvs. He’s just 10 years old but he does single takes. He’s a really smart guy.

This film comes with great expectations from the audience. Does that weigh on you?

This film is coming out before a much wider audience than my other films. Usually, a film releases in Kerala, then outside Kerala, then outside India. Even if a film was releasing widely, the distribution system had limitations. We can properly release in maybe 40-45 countries. But now, over 190 countries will have Minnal Murali available through Netflix. The audience for Malayalam films has been small but we have to push these boundaries.

Tovino in Minnal Murali
With Netflix’s help as well as Jio MAMI, we have been able to achieve this. Malayalis are also really excited about this film. So yes, we have a big responsibility to meet expectations and we have given more than our 100 percent for the film. This humble attempt from our end may make more people watch Malayalam films. And we can also grow through such appreciation for Malayalam cinema.

We’ve had several superhero films from Hollywood, and the Malayali audience would have watched that too. But the sensibilities of a Malayalam film are different from those. How have you Malayali-fied the genre?

You have to wait for three more days to find out (laughs). But we’ve tried to keep it authentic. When we think of a superhero film, we can’t think of the subject on Hollywood or Bollywood scale. We don’t have that kind of budget. We know that it will be Malayalis who will primarily watch our films, though in recent times accessibility to Malayalam films has increased due to OTT platforms. Most of the greatest Malayalam films have not been watched by non-Malayalis because they couldn’t access it. Malayalis, on the other hand, watch films across languages. Tamil, Telugu, English, Spanish, Korean... they watch everything and we know we won’t get any concessions from them. We have to compete with all other industries when we release a Malayalam film. We can’t fool people and make a nonsensical film to wow them. A Malayali audience will embrace a film sincerely only if they are satisfied with the content and quality. Our thought was that when Malayalis can enjoy films made across languages, maybe people from other places too will enjoy a good Malayalam film. Our job was to deliver that and make it available. 

The pan-Indian film has been a big trend ever since Baahubali came out. Did you think along those lines for Minnal Murali?

Both Baahubali and KGF were very inspiring for the south Indian industries. But unless you get a Bollywood distributor, it’s difficult. You can put VFX, subtitles... but it has to release in major centres, right? That’s not easy. You need to have the right contacts. But you have to chase it. KGF is a good example of how they made it happen. Because it was a good film, people liked it too and it became pan-Indian. The other thing is that when a wide audience watches it, the criticism you get will also be much higher. When you show your film to a much bigger circle, you have to make sure the movie is good. No other country in the world has so much diversity in cinema, with so many film industries and languages. We should make that our strength and have many more pan-Indian films.

You play a 24-year-old in the film. You’ve been playing mature roles in your recent films. Did you find it easy to make the switch?

In real life, I’m someone who’s in the age group between the Minnal Murali character and those roles. Basil and I are small kids at heart. We are not very serious and mature about everything, only issues that really require us to be that way. Otherwise, we take things lightly. This character, Jaison, is someone who jokes around, is slightly odd, has a high fashion sense; in a place where people walk around in lungi and towel, he wears an Abibas t-shirt, a crucifix earring. It’s this guy who becomes a superhero.

Tovino in Minnal Murali
The transition is very gradual. He’s not the type who starts saving people as soon as he gets powers. He’s selfish, a bit dim-witted. And then he goes through an emotional transformation which you’ll see in the film. There’s also a physical transformation. He’s a little chubby to begin with and then all that changes. Though we went through two lockdowns because of the pandemic, we tried to maintain the continuity. By the time it ended, the character looked fine in a superhero costume. At least, you wouldn’t look at him and say, “Aiye!” The aim was not to turn him into some kind of larger-than-life bodybuilder. He still had to look like someone who came from those parts. The point is to make the audience identify with him as a common man, and then when that common man gets superpowers, they also get that high.

We can’t take references from films abroad. We don’t have such skyscrapers here (in Kerala). We don’t have such roads. We have gullies. We thought a lot about how this character would walk, talk, behave. We can’t imitate films that come from a different culture, it has to be grounded in our own.

What sort of brainstorming happened behind the costume for the superhero?

Lots! Let’s say there are three instances when the superhero appears in the film, the costume is different for each. It’s not like as soon as he gets superpowers, he becomes a superhero who does good for everyone. It’s only when he realises his responsibility that it happens. The final costume you see reflects that. He gets educated through his nephew about superheroes and their costumes, and this final one comes through that. We didn’t think of using CGI for the costume. We thought it had to be something that would look natural on him.

You have worked out quite a bit for this film. Was it hard maintaining such a schedule, especially during the pandemic?

I’d been working on maintaining my body for more than a year before the pandemic. In the process, I found out more about my body. How it responds to certain foods, workouts. I’m still studying. Minnal Murali was a life lesson in that sense. I’ve become much more disciplined now. Before Minnal Murali began, I had only a daughter. Now my son is 1.5 years old and the film is just coming out. So as an actor and human being, I’ve learnt a lot.

You’ve done all sorts of roles so far, from dark ones like Kaanekkaane to violent, crazy ones like Kala. Do you wait for such scripts to come to you or has it just happened that way?

I just follow my instincts. I don’t claim to be a terrific actor; only if I try will I know if I can do it. I don’t like to limit myself. I get bored quickly. If I watch myself doing the same thing, I may get bored of myself. If I’m bored of myself, how can I tell people not to get bored?

Tovino in Kaanekkaane

I try to explore my potential. That’s what I’ve been doing from the beginning and I’ve come far from where I started. There’s still a lot of time ahead.

Tovino in Kala
Do you worry about your on-screen image when you pick roles?

I think about what I want, not what others want from me. I want to be a good actor, make different kinds of films. I want to make sure the producer makes back the money. I’m living my dream now. I have no complaints. More than image and stardom, I want people to appreciate my performance. I think about three aspects when it comes to cinema. It’s an art form and its artistic value should not be compromised. It should entertain, engage people. If it gives a good message, that is also fine. It has to interact with the people. This is an industry where a lot of money is involved. If you think you’ve made a great film but the producer has lost money, you can’t really take pride in it. That’s all I think about, not if I’m the hero, the villain, comedian, ordinary man or whatever.

What did your kids think about Minnal Murali?

My son is only 1.5 years old. He won’t even look at my face for that long (laughs). He’s too small. I was with my wife three months before he was born and three months after he was born. He doesn’t think of me as just a familiar uncle (laughs), but yes, he’s too small. My daughter is almost six and she has watched the movie. The sparkle in her eyes was great to see. She was watching it with the sense that there’s a superhero in her house. Now if she has the misconception that I’m actually a superhero, I’m not going to correct it till the time she grows up and figures it out herself!

You’re an AMMA office bearer now. What made you wish to be part of it and what do you think the organisation can do for the welfare of its members?

This is the first time that I have been elected as office bearer. From whatever I’ve understood from my interactions, it’s an organisation with very good intentions. Nobody is perfect, but these are good people in the organisation. AMMA financially helps out many people who are no longer active in cinema. There are many good things the organisation does and we should appreciate that. When something wrong is done, that should be pointed out. That is how one should operate. Going ahead, I look forward to being part of constructive discussions. As part of AMMA, I too have the responsibility of taking it forward. I was only a member earlier but I’m now part of the Executive Committee and hope to become more involved. I’m still awed that I’m in the same room as people who I’ve watched on the big screen growing up. That excitement still hasn’t left me. They have entrusted me with this responsibility, and whatever I need to voice out, I will. I expect that I will have the freedom to point out the good and the bad.

Watch the Minnal Murali trailer:

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