Director Basil Joseph talks about his journey as a filmmaker, the acting roles he has done and his upcoming movie ‘Minnal Murali’ with actor Tovino Thomas.

Director Basil JosephDirector Basil Joseph/Facebook
Flix Interview Tuesday, December 21, 2021 - 13:03

It seems no coincidence that Minnal Murali is this year’s big festive release, considering the film was conceptualised as a Christmas allegory. The main character, Minnal Murali (played by Tovino Thomas), has been plugged as Indian cinema’s first original desi superhero and gets his powers when lightning strikes him during the night of Christmas. And it seems like Basil Joseph, the director of the film, has designed his superhero keeping an eye on the obvious audience—kids. 

Initially, Murali was envisaged as a fisherman living in an imaginary village called Kurakkan Moola, the final version will see him as a tailor who gets superhero powers. This is Basil Joseph’s third film, after the hugely successful Kunjiramayanam, which took place in a fictional village stuffed with quirky characters, followed by Godha, a light-hearted sports drama. 

But this time the stakes are high for both Basil and his favourite hero, Tovino Thomas, as they get ready with the most prestigious and much-awaited film of the year and their careers. TNM caught up with actor-director Basil Joseph for a chat.

What were the challenges of localising a superhero?

Since we had no reference, coming up with the right superhero costume was a challenge. He is an original desi superhero. So, we took the help of several artists to conjure up various costume sketches. We wanted to localise him, but we didn’t want him to end up as a comic figure nor let his super heroism be diluted. A lungi or too much western influence could also kill the momentum.

I am guessing that Tovino Thomas was a natural choice…

It was a very simple and straightforward choice. I know his strengths and weaknesses as an actor. There is a lot of visual comedy in the film and Tovino had to bring that humour in his body language. Communication is very important when it comes to humour. The actor has to trust the director and vice versa. When it comes to humour, you need to catch the right meter, unlike drama which has a minimum guarantee.

It’s interesting how you were able to tap that side of Tovino, who looks conventionally masculine.

I can push Tovino to any extent, and he will let me. Our friendship does wonders for both of us on the sets. The laugh after that balloon burst scene required a certain meter, and he nailed it.

A village, quirky characters, flawed heroes – these are staples in your films. Where did the obsession of setting your films in villages come from?

I hail from a small town in Wayanad. During my formative years, I devoured the films of Priyadarshan and Sathyan Anthikad, read a lot of Amar Chitra Katha, Balarama, and Bala Sahitya books. So, I have the instincts of a village boy. Naturally, I am drawn towards that terrain.

Do all your heroes have shades of you?

Of course. I think you can see the directors in all their heroes. Be it Gautham Menon or Vineeth Sreenivasan.

You began your career assisting Vineeth Sreenivasan for Thira. Why did you specifically want to work with Vineeth?

I can relate to his films—they are commercial, and the humour is very grounded and relatable. We are also the same age. And he has the reputation of nurturing fine talents. It’s not easy to get entry into his school of filmmaking.

But you did. How did that happen?

It’s not easy for someone from Wayanad to gain entry into cinema. I even consulted career guidance experts. Then I heard how Balaji Mohan was picked by Siddharth after he saw the director’s short Kadhilil Sodhappuvadhu Yeppadi. So, I made a short film called Priyamvadha Kaatharayanu and sent it to various actors/filmmakers on social media. Only Aju Varghese responded. He was the one who introduced me to Vineeth. The corporate office where I worked agreed to grant me four months' leave because of Vineeth’s reputation.

Ironically, you assisted on the only non-feel-good film Vineeth made. What was the takeaway?

That was the first time I was seeing a film shooting in my life. I realised it was unlike directing a short film, be it the hierarchy or the process of filmmaking. It was a great opportunity to work with Shobana, Jomon T John, and an experienced crew. I think I learned what I would have working on 2-3 films from just Thira.

Was the path that led to your first film a struggle?

Not at all. Once Vineeth agreed, things just moved fast. And there wasn’t much struggle to make the film too. We were a very young crew and it never felt like we were making a film, it was just having a lot of fun with friends. That’s why I think I can never do a film like Kunjiramayanam again because we are not so innocent anymore. Now we have so many filters while making a film.

You never repeat your writers. In fact, you aren’t particular about repeating your crew too.

I am more interested in working around an idea, the process and execution. I don’t believe in the concept of depending on a crew to make a film. Having said that, we do need a good crew who has better knowledge than us while making a film. I was blessed when it came to Minnal Murali.

This is your first collaboration with cinematographer and director Sameer Thahir. What did he bring to the table?

Since Vishnu Sharma had committed to a Telugu film, we reached out to Sameer Thahir, who politely declined as he and his wife had recently had a baby. But six months later, when we still hadn’t gotten a cinematographer of our choice, I randomly messaged him and he was on board. His visuals are grounded and realistic in tone, while my perspective is more commercial, entertaining, cinematic, and humorous. That blend of aesthetics has given a unique feel to the film. His experience was a big asset for us. During trying times, he had our back.

What part of making a film do you enjoy the most?

The screenwriting process is what excites me the most. Especially visualising the process with the support of music since I depend so much on it in my films. Shooting is also exciting but rather hectic. And Minnal Murali had to be finished within a budget.

Today the definition of what constitutes “good cinema” has changed.  There is the added responsibility of keeping it politically correct. Does that weigh you down as a filmmaker?

When I write, I am not conscious of it. If we are correct and genuine about something, it automatically becomes right. I am not ready to do a pretentious film to tick certain boxes. Most of my movies are cinematic with more space for drama and humour. Not much to talk about political correctness in my films.

What about as a viewer? Does that matter to you?

I just enjoy what is happening on screen. If it is very forceful, it bothers me. Often it has happened that I just watch it as a movie and then read the reviews to realise the political correctness. I find it irksome when filmmakers thoughtlessly portray caste or community.

Jaaneman is the talk of the town. Was Joymon (the character Basil Joseph played in the film) as easy to pull off as it looked?

There was so much space created for us to perform without inhibitions. The brief was to go all out, be very loud and extreme. It helped that the director had a great sense of humour. I am something like Joymon in real life. My wife vouches for that. So many dialogues were improvised. With such an encouraging crew, you learn to shed your hang-ups. Jaaneman had that friend's vibe, found commonly in a Vineeth-Nivin or a Priyan-Mohanlal film.

I thought the conversation between Joymon and Monichan was the core of the film.

The audience needed to smile and yet not find it funny. It revealed another side of Joymon. The humour and emotions had to work equally there. That’s my favourite scene in the film. Mostly I get one-dimensional characters, or I will be a hero’s friend or my character will be described by a name. Rarely do I get such layered characters.

Did the fact that your father was a priest help in portraying the character of a priest in Joji?

Yes. I would say my casting as the priest was their brilliance. They could have easily roped in Dileesh Pothan or Joy Mathew, but they knew my father was a priest, a Jacobite priest and it would look more authentic than casting me as a Roman Catholic priest. Also, one has to appreciate their process. It’s a thriving space for an actor. They have a one-liner, story order in their mind but the structure of that scene will only be formed after it is shot. They construct the scenes on location and shoot them in chronological order.

My filmmaking is shuffled. At times, the climax will be shot first. My character graph and arc are all predefined and artists are required to perform and make it better. Any actor can only do as much. But these guys improvise according to the actor's mannerisms and attributes. It evolved from there. Most of their work gets done by the right casting, the rest of it depends on how you are performing it. As an actor, my inputs are considered for the character’s growth. That’s why their actors' performances are so feted.

Your cameo in Mayaanadhi as a filmmaker was so on point. I particularly loved how you reacted in the part when the actor requests you to alter a scene. Was it improvised?

That dialogue happened during the rehearsals. I first said “nashichu potte” and Syam said add Malayalam cinema too.

Which is the film that probably inspired you to take up direction?

My Dear Kuttichathan. I saw the revamped version which was released in 1994. I loved how chocolates, ice creams, and a Kuttichathan floated around. In fact, Minnal Murali was inspired by that film. Director Jijo made a 3D film without any CG support or computer graphics. I don’t think another movie of that kind will ever be made in India. We had movies that were converted into 3D during post-production but none which were shot in 3D so convincingly like My Dear Kuttichathan. I am sure our film will be compared with Marvel and DC films and it's impossible to match up. But for us just to pull off a Minnal Murali within a budget was one hell of a challenge. 

Neelima Menon has worked in the newspaper industry for more than a decade. She has covered Hindi and Malayalam cinema for The New Indian Express and has worked briefly with Silverscreen.in. She now writes exclusively about Malayalam cinema, contributing to Fullpicture.in and thenewsminute.com. She is known for her detailed and insightful features on misogyny and the lack of representation of women in Malayalam cinema.

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