Superhero films are all alike if you take the broad premise. An ordinary man or woman who acquires superpowers due to an incident; they're typical underdogs who rise to the occasion and save the world, putting their own small goals aside.The villain is someone who has superpowers, too, but puts them to malicious use. A superhero can perform any superhuman feat but ironically, the production of a superhero film is tied to the very mundane question of money. Which is why, most of these films come out of the fancy studios in Hollywood. Minnal Murali, directed by Basil Joseph and written by Arun Anirudhan and Justin Mathew, is a homegrown superhero film that doesn't try to compete with these films that involve big bucks; instead, the superhero from Kurukkanmoola is as local as he can get (he even wears a red thorthu as a mask in one encounter), and the story, as universal as it is, stays true to its small town sensibilities.
The film begins with a poignant image. Little Jaison is watching a play about a saint who delivers justice and fights evil. But an explosion leads to the death of the actor, and Jaison watches the flames go up, his eyes glued to the stage. As a grown man, Jaison (Tovino) seems to have shaken off what he witnessed that day in his childhood. He dresses like an 'American' because he wants to go to America. He walks around with the haughty air of being too good to be stuck in Kurukkanmoola. Tovino is hilarious as Jaison, playing up the character's innocence and foolishness, and strutting around in his ABIBAS T-shirt.
Jaison's world has all the flavours that you would expect in a Malayalam film set in a small town. An ex-girlfriend (Sneha Babu) who dumps him for a rich guy (Jude Anthany Joseph); a new romance brewing (Femina George); a hapless sister (Arya Salim) who's married to a man who beats her up (Aju Varghese); a worried father (P Balachandran) who doesn't approve of Jaison much; and sundry townspeople defined in one or two deft strokes. There's also his cheeky nephew (Vashisht) who appears to be his best friend and fount of knowledge about all things superhero.
On Doordarshan Malayalam, a scientist drones on about a rare astronomical event, but nobody in Kurukkanmoola cares. And then, things begin to change. Is the plot unexpected? Totally not. We already know that Jaison is going to transform, but it's the little comic elements that Basil introduces in the staging that make all the difference. Jaison isn't in New York, so when the big event happens and he has to be rushed to hospital, nobody dials 911. He's dumped into an auto, with the auto driver making stops to tell people what had happened to Jaison. His experiments with his superpowers are equally entertaining. (I spilt my coffee giggling at the kid dressed up as Gandhi encouraging Minnal Murali to beat up the cop violently).
There's another plot thread; one involving Shibu (Guru Somasundaram) and Usha (Shelly Kishore), which turns the mood of the film. Jaison and Shibu's stories run in parallel. Similar events and histories bring them together, and Basil gradually sets up the tension and conflict, with the background score accentuating these moments. Guru, best known for a stellar performance in Joker, hits it out of the park in Minnal Murali, sinking his teeth into the role and reveling in it.
Watch: Trailer of Minnal Murali
There are the typical saves that superheroes perform, but these still look original because of the newness of the setting. The scenes with visual effects are few and far between, and while they aren't as imaginative or stunning when compared to what we're used to seeing in this genre, they are still believable. It's no mean feat that when Jaison lands on the ground in his shiny Minnal Murali suit with 'ma' written in Malayalam, we take him seriously and buy into the fantasy. My favourite shot, however, is of a man perched at a height and watching the chaos below with the backdrop of the church. It inspires the image of hellfire and a fallen angel, except this one was never given a fair chance in life. It may evoke a sense of deja vu, given the familiarity of such visuals in superhero films, but that's also what makes it an effective genre film. If I had a grouse, it is to do with the continued vilification of mental illness on screen, although there is a moment or two of empathy that you feel for the character concerned.
Minnal Murali hides its surprises well, and just when you've settled down to watch a comedy about a buffoonish superhero, it changes the game. The ending suggests that there may well be a sequel on the cards, and what a marvel that would be! Everyone knows that the superhero will save the day, but it requires superhuman effort to create a film that grabs your attention and makes you watch till the end. Minnal Murali certainly ticks that box.
The film will be released on December 24 on Netflix.
Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the series/film. TNM Editorial is independent of any business relationship the organisation may have with producers or any other members of its cast or crew.