Why Minnal Murali's portrayal of Shibu isn't glorifying stalking

Shibu's obsession with Usha is certainly unsettling, but it's important to go beyond merely looking at the characters and examine the narrative too.
 Shelly Kishore as Usha and Guru Somasundaram as Shibu in Minnal Murali
Shelly Kishore as Usha and Guru Somasundaram as Shibu in Minnal Murali
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*Major spoilers ahead

Malayalam superhero film Minnal Murali, directed by Basil Joseph and written by Arun Anirudhan and Justin Mathew, released on Netflix recently to mostly positive reviews. The story revolves around Jaison (Tovino Thomas), a naive young man in Kurukkanmoola village, who gets struck by lightning and develops superpowers. But unknown to Jaison, there is another man in the village who acquires the same powers that night and will grow into a formidable enemy. Played by Guru Somasundaram, Shibu is the Joker to Minnal Murali’s Batman. It's a familiar trope in the superhero genre; a Good Vs Evil battle between two evenly matched characters, one who is determined to save the world and the other who wants to destroy it. The reason for Shibu's devolution to violence has, however, triggered a debate on social media.

The first time we meet Shibu, he is looking for his lost wallet. Not because it has money but because it has the precious photograph of a girl he has been obsessed with since their school days. Usha (Shelly Kishore) is now a grown woman with a daughter, but for Shibu, nothing has changed. When Usha is abandoned by her husband and she returns to her brother's home in Kurukkanmoola, Shibu hopes once again that he will be able to live with her. Despite Usha's indifference towards him, he still tries to catch a glimpse of her and intervene whenever she has problems. But eventually, Shibu's obsession leads him to murder Usha's brother, Daasan (Harisree Ashokan), because the latter is opposed to the two of them getting together. Meanwhile, Usha has a change of heart about Shibu after he tries to help her out in a medical emergency involving her daughter, and she decides to live with him. They, however, do not find happiness together; just moments after she expresses her feelings to Shibu, Usha and her daughter are killed in a fire started by the villagers who have discovered Shibu's identity and his crime.

This story arc has led to several discussions among the audience — which in itself is a welcome sign. It is encouraging that viewers no longer watch films passively, and are interested in looking closely at the politics of representation, especially gender. When Priyadarshan's Vandanam featuring Mohanlal and Girija Shettar came out in 1989, for instance, the romance was celebrated as cute and funny, though the film has several problematic scenes — including the hero hiding under the woman's bed and watching her undress, and later forcing her to say that she loves him. Such scenes are unlikely to be viewed in the same way now. Despite its high ranking in the Gender Equality Index (GEI), several stalking crimes have been reported in Kerala. The romanticisation of stalking in cinema only adds to the problem, normalising male violence while simultaneously eroding a woman's agency to express, withdraw, or deny consent. But does Minnal Murali glorify stalking as love?

Creating realistic, relatable characters is among the many challenges that a writer faces while telling a story. Even if these stories have fantastical elements, the audience must be able to empathise with the characters' predicament, or at least understand the reason for their point of view. If this doesn't happen, the audience does not care about what's happening on screen, since they're not emotionally invested. The story merely unfolds as a spectacle without the audience's complete involvement. In many of our mainstream films, the hero and the villain are clearly defined. The hero is a good person with good intentions while the villain is an evil person with evil intentions. Thus, when the hero stalks a woman, it is to be understood as romance and when the villain does the same, it is to be understood as danger. Seldom does the narrative examine what made the characters who they are, particularly the antagonist.

Minnal Murali, like the 2019 film Joker directed by Todd Phillips, lays out an elaborate backstory for Shibu's emergence. It's not only the superhero who gets his origin story but also the supervillain. His social status as a Tamil migrant man belonging to a lower caste places him at the bottom of the social hierarchy. The people of Kurukkanmoola are dismissive of him, and he lives as a social outcast. When Jaison is struck by lightning, for instance, the entire community springs to action. Although he is largely considered to be a useless youth, the people around him and his family come together to take him to the hospital, enquire about his health, and take care of him. When Shibu is struck by lightning at the same moment, however, he is alone and left to make a slow recovery by himself. Jaison is orphaned at a young age but he's adopted by a family that has social standing in the village. Shibu, on the other hand, is ostracised as the son of a 'mad woman' and treated as lesser than everyone else.

Both of them nurse a broken heart; Jaison is dumped by his girlfriend Bincy, while Usha — who Shibu has always loved — elopes with another man after she becomes pregnant. Jaison's heartbreak and his subsequent behaviour receives a comic treatment. When Jaison goes to Bincy's house and confronts her about why she dumped him, he ends up hiding under her bed because her father unexpectedly enters the room. Dressed as Santa Claus, Jaison cuts a funny figure, and the humour is accentuated when one of the balloons he's carrying bursts.

Watch: Trailer of Minnal Murali 

In Shibu's case, however, the heartbreak receives a much darker, disturbing treatment. Like Shibu, Usha is also a social outcast because of her status as an abandoned woman, and the scandal of her elopement and pregnancy. She finds that the men of the village feel they're entitled to make a pass at her whenever they get the opportunity; her brother guilts and pressures her to marry a wealthy man though she's unwilling to do so. Her indifference towards Shibu changes when he helps her take her child to the hospital, and later tries to arrange money for the operation. In a situation where she has few choices, she begins to see Shibu's attention differently. But when Shibu approaches Daasan and asks if he would allow his sister to marry him, Daasan categorically rejects him because of his background. Angered by this, Shibu murders Daasan in cold blood, eventually leading to the village turning against him and Usha dying in a fire along with her daughter. The balloon makes an appearance here too; a young boy asks Shibu, who's carrying balloons in the village fair, for one. As the child blows air into it, Shibu watches him with chilling enjoyment on his face. And as the balloon bursts, the explosives that Shibu has set up start bursting.

Shibu's obsession with Usha is certainly unsettling, but it's important to go beyond merely looking at the characters and examine the narrative as well. Shibu isn't portrayed as a cutefied lovelorn man; he's portrayed as a mentally unstable person who becomes violent when he doesn't get what he wants (and he's always had this streak in him, even as a child, we're told). The vilification of hereditary mental illness is unfortunate in the film which should have handled the subject better (like Koode did), but this is to underline the point that Shibu’s obsession is not normalised like it is in the average film. Usha's change of heart doesn't happen automatically; it happens due to a series of events, and she finds comfort in his company as someone who is also a social outcast like her (in the scene at his home, Usha's question is 'Will you be with me?', rather than a profession of love). This is markedly different from the representation of a romance where a man relentlessly pursues a woman despite her saying no and she eventually gives in, with happy background music blessing the union. In Minnal Murali, the scene is followed by Usha's death provoked by Shibu's actions and his inconsolable grief. He's neither portrayed as an invincible macho man nor is he rewarded for his behaviour.

When Joker came out in 2019, there were several debates around whether the film glorified violence. Though the film does not shy away from depicting the violence unleashed by Arthur Fleck, it shows young people being inspired by him, imitating his actions and endorsing his world view; this was seen as a law and order concern, with some even worrying that it would lead to mass shootings. Whether Joker was indeed problematic is a debate for another day. In Minnal Murali, the story arc with Usha establishes Shibu's trigger and motives; it creates empathy for the character but without deeming his actions as worthy of emulation. He is a villain, but the director wants us to understand the circumstances in which he became one. In the process, the film holds up a mirror to the society we live in.

The old man who molests Usha in the tea shop is the person who reveals Shibu's crime to the police. Usha's kind brother is the person who rudely sends away Shibu because of his social location. The policemen who are corrupt and break the law themselves, are the ones hunting Shibu. The village that treated Shibu and Usha as outcasts is the one filled with righteous anger. Shibu dies, but the blame of creating him falls upon the society from which he emerged, just as it can take credit for creating a Minnal Murali out of Jaison.

Representation doesn't mean endorsement, and complexity must not be read as justification. The discourse on cinema or any form of storytelling must be cognizant of this. When the world isn't black and white, how can stories about it be so? How would we understand a Hashem from The Color of Paradise or a Viji from Peranbu otherwise? How would we find and recognise ourselves in art if it only projects an ideal world? There are many Shibus around us, and the easiest thing would be to condemn them as criminals and demand that they be hanged. But crimes against women will not stop unless we realise how we are culpable as a society too, and function as enablers for such behaviour.

Views expressed are author's own.

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