‘Was Originally Fisherman Struck by Lightning’: Tovino & Basil on Minnal Murali
Basil Joseph and Tovino Thomas open up about creating a superhero from scratch for their film ‘Minnal Murali’.
Malayalam cinema’s ‘homegrown superhero’ Minnal Murali is all set to grace our Netflix screens this Christmas Eve. Starring Tovino Thomas as the titular superhero, the film follows the journey of Murali, an ordinary tailor who receives superpowers after being struck by lightning. The initial trailer has racked up a whopping ten million views already, and anticipation for Minnal Murali is definitely crackling.
Hannah Abraham sat down with lead Tovino Thomas and director Basil Joseph to chat about the road to recognition for Malayalam cinema, the initial idea for the film, and more.
Minnal Murali has been garnering a lot of hype among the press and audiences alike. What is the most exciting experience that you’ve had associated with the film so far?
Basil Joseph: We are incredibly excited for the film too! Recently, we had an interaction with Priyanka Chopra for the JIO Mami Mumbai Film Festival. Her saying that she’s watched the movie and liked it just goes to show that the film has gone beyond borders and languages. Malayalam cinema has already been doing that for a while, and for an international celebrity to appreciate the film publicly is something that we had not expected in our dreams. She also praised the Malayalam film industry quite a bit, which was a proud moment for us because it is a sign of the respect that our films have garnered within the entertainment industry as a whole. That interview was definitely a high point during our press tour.
How did the both of you decide to collaborate on this film?
Tovino Thomas: Basil came to me in 2018 with the idea for Minnal Murali. I was very excited about the concept, and I knew that I would be comfortable working with him, especially because we have been friends for a while and have collaborated on Godha before this. It was not easy pulling off this character, especially considering we have little to no reference for a ‘grounded’ superhero. With him, I knew I could improvise, and we have the kind of relationship where he can tell me if something is not working, or if I have to bring more energy at any point. I think it is this ease that brought us together for this project, and we would definitely love to collaborate in the future too.
Basil, you started off Minnal Murali as a ‘one-line idea’ four years ago. Can you share with us what the idea was?
Tovino: I remember one of the initial ideas was that Murali was an auto driver!
Basil: Actually the first concept was that Murali would be a fisherman from Kuttanad who received superpowers after being struck by lightning. The idea then evolved from there into him being a tailor from a fictional village called Kurukkanmoola.
And how did you decide that lightning was the medium through which he got his powers?
Basil: Lightning (or ‘minnal’) is universal. It is not something that is out of the ordinary, like a mutation or a chemical leak from a factory. Anybody can get struck by lightning, and we thought that would be the most relatable way for him to get his superpowers.
Tovino: There have also been stories of actual people behaving differently after being struck by lightning too, so there is that.
All the well-known superhero movies of our time have been adapted from comics and based on a pre-existing universe. What was it like to come up with Minnal Murali from scratch?
Basil: To begin with, we do not have much of a superhero culture in the country. We did have movies like Krishh, but we did not have a lot of comics as a base that we could work with. Our superheroes have mostly been mythical figures like Ram, Krishna, and Hanuman, as opposed to characters like Spiderman and Superman in the west. Considering this background, we knew that if we were introducing a new superhero we would have to be extremely elaborate and convincing. We wrote the screenplay in a way that you see the character evolve into a superhero rather than become one overnight.
An advantage that we had because of the pandemic is that, since the initial teaser release in 2019, a subculture has formed around Minnal Murali as a character. Within two years, Minnal Murali has become somewhat of a household name even before the film has come out - with things like fan art, analysis and stunt recreations populating the internet.
Why do you think now is the right time for a film like Minnal Murali?
Tovino: Malayalam cinema has been producing amazing content for a long time now. I feel like Mayalalis are one of the rare communities that are open to films in any language at all. The challenge for Malayali filmmakers is that they are always competing with world cinema in terms of content.
I think so far though, the prevalent situation was that the audience for Malayalam cinema remained mostly Malayalis themselves. I wonder how many brilliant films went without the international acclaim they deserved, simply because they did not reach as large an audience as they should have.
Especially during the lockdown period, OTT platforms have helped people all over India appreciate Malayalam cinema even more. It is at a time of change like this that we have come with Minnal Murali. The film is going to be released in more than 200 countries, and a worldwide distributor like Netflix has made possible what a theatrical release probably could not. It is being dubbed in 8 languages, and has subtitles in 32 languages. When people who understand all these languages also begin to watch our films, I feel like Malayalam cinema is finally occupying the space that it has deserved all this time.
I think all these factors have come together to make this the best time for our film to reach audiences, and I hope that Minnal Murali will cement the Malayalam industry as being a force to be internationally reckoned with.
Minnal Murali will release on Netflix on 24 December 2021.
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