"Minnal Murali", Dir: Basil Joseph, 2021
Updated: Dec 30, 2021
The term "Indian superheroes" tends to provoke laughter outside of India and perhaps in India itself, largely as a result of films that have slavishly imitated Western superhero genre films and that have been hampered by lower production values in the all-important visual effects department. Another reason is the dominance of the romantic and action melodramas that typify "Bollywood" and the certainty of box-office returns from that type of cinema when compared to riskier ventures into genres like science fiction and fantasy.
In fact films featuring superheroes in Indian cinema can be traced back to the 1960's - and by superhero I mean the Western concept of the superhero based on the templates of Superman, Batman and others. Indians would argue that there existed an even earlier template in the form of the many deities of Hinduism and their stupendous superhuman feats and these have been well catered for in Indian cinema and have been largely confined to the South Indian film industry.
Throughout the 70's and 80's film-makers in both the North and South would occasionally dip into the genre with variable results on the coat-tails of the box office success of "Superman", most often aiming the films at a younger less discriminating audience or to satirise the genre and were generally lacking in the conviction necessary to make audiences believe that a man (or woman) could do anything other than perform slick dance moves while dressed in wrinkly Spandex.
Things looked up a little at the dawn of the new millennium with Rakesh Roshan's "Krrish" trilogy starring his son, Hrithik Roshan as the titular character and while the first film (2004) in the series, "Koi Mil Gaya" (Eng: "I've Found Someone") was an engaging and well-executed science fiction / superhero film that proved to be enough of a box office success to inspire sequels, it now looks a little rough around the edges, despite breaking the mold.
The first film cleverly riffed on popular Western films such as "E.T", "Superman" and "The Mask" besides showcasing the many talents of Hrithik Roshan - the sequel, "Krrish" took the concept further with interesting results though by the concluding part of the trilogy, "Krrish 2", it became clear that the influence of Marvel and the requirement for ever more ambitious visual effects spectacle had eroded what made the first film a more serious stab at the genre.
The success of the "Krrish" series and the unstoppable onslaught of the box-office juggernaut that is the Marvel franchise series of films meant that other Indian film-makers were quick to take up the baton, but where the "Krrish" series can be considered a rare detour for "Bollywood" (ie North Indian) cinema, these films have been by and large confined to the less risk-averse and daring South Indian film industry, with the exception of 2011's "Ra One", a Shah Rukh Khan starrer that again simply carbon-copied successful Western genre films before it, most notably Disney's "Tron".
While visual effects in Indian cinema have moved on in leaps and bounds thanks to the benefits provided by an unending supply of service work on many Hollywood tent-pole films, including those from Marvel, that has raised the bar from a technical standpoint, the few fantasy genre films that have emerged from India have banked on quirky plots, characters and ambitious visual effects set-pieces to rival, and in some cases surpass, those from any Hollywood film while attempting to offer a more locally flavoured variety of superhero, such as the robot in 2010's "Endhiran" and its' sequel "2.0", the former being a box-office hit.
All these films have a common element, which is that they tend to be set in the urban metropolis common to American superhero comics and films and consequently there is a suggestion that such genre films can only really be appreciated by sophisticated city dwellers who get the references and whose children read the comics, and by implication have the buying power to purchase the inevitable spin-off merchandise that follow these films.
This is a film that bucks the trend in a number of interesting ways. Firstly it shifts the location of the story to rural South India and chooses to focus on the Christian Malayali community. As background, Christianity reached the South of India via St Thomas The Apostle, who is supposed to have alighted on the Malabar coast in what is present-day Kerala - the location of the film - in 52 AD and as a result there are many Malayali and Tamil Christian communities in the South who have lived in relative harmony for centuries with their primarily Hindu neighbours.
Indian village life in the 21st century is not so very different to the world my parents, from the dominant Hindu Tamil community, grew up in and to Western eyes could seem lacking in basic amenities and the film offers an intriguing window into a world that seems frozen in time apart from the odd auto-rickshaw or bus, besides revealing the peculiarities of the Malayali Christian communities, such as celebrating Christmas with a man dressed in a Father Christmas outfit and people singing "Jingle Bells" as they visit homes seeking donations.
"Jaison", (Tovino Thomas) a young tailor, works at his fathers shop while dreaming of escaping his village for a life in America, but only after marrying his school sweetheart "Bincy". Complications arise when Bincy's father, the local chief of police, feels that Jaison is unsuitable and arranges for her to marry "Aneesh" a young man with prospects, to which Bincy reluctantly agrees.
A prologue reveals that Jaison survived after gunpowder for fireworks is ignited during an outdoor theatre event, causing an explosion that kills his father, a travelling stage actor who is playing a folk hero in a drama about the injustices visited upon poor village folk by greedy landowners.
A stones throw from Jaison's father's tailoring shop is a teashop where "Shibu" (Guru Somasundaram), a social outcast because his mother had a mental illness, works as a lowly tea-boy and has to endure the jibes of customers. Shibu has nursed a secret love for "Usha" since his school days but she eloped with a lorry driver and has a child, a union that proved to be a mistake since Shibu hears that she has returned to the village after her wayward husband had left her.
Spurred on by this knowledge, Shibu attempts to contact Usha with a proposal of marriage but her father will have none of it since he is just a poor tea-boy whose father ekes out a living making firecrackers from the hovel they call a home, and besides he has plans to marry Usha off to a wealthy friend who is interested in her.
This sets up the story of two people thwarted in love in different ways and from different social classes but in a way that is very recogniseable in village life in any of the diverse rural communities of India and the South in particular.
A once in 700 hundred years astronomical event where certain planets are in alignment causes severe weather conditions resulting in electrical storms and on the same evening in different locations, Jaison and Shibu are struck by lightning but miraculously survive, though as they gradually discover, now with "superpowers".
While it is inevitable that audiences will root for the younger, good-looking Jaison, the film chooses to focus on Shibu, who is not a bad person per se, just a victim of circumstance, and we see how he gradually turns from being downtrodden to buoyed by new hope when he sees Usha, while learning to harness his new-found powers which are in fact far superior to those of Jaison, followed by the gradual unravelling of his mental state as his plans are thwarted.
Jaison deals with the humiliation of being dumped by Bincy by roundly thrashing her father and the rest of the local police force with his new super powers during a school concert where he dresses up in a mask and a bird costume as "Minnal Murali", a character inspired by a play that his father had written about a saviour who rights wrongs and so concealing his true identity from the village.
The film makes few concessions or obvious references to existing comic strip superheroes apart from Jaison's doting young nephew who shows him Superman and Batman comics in an attempt to convince him to use his superpowers for good, and Shibu uses a tattered scarecrow mask to hide his identity in what could be viewed as reference to the character from "Batman" but it never feels like a gratuitous or an overly obvious nod.
It is revealed that Jaison's father is in fact his adoptive father who saved him after the explosion seen in the prologue, which has some parallels with "Superman" but that's about it and because of the location and context it never feels obvious.
In fact what is so refreshing about the film is that for most of it you don't feel you are watching a superhero film at all, rather it's a touching glimpse into the often banal and quotidien lives of ordinary rural communities riven by social and economic differences that have the effect of dashing hopes and crushing the spirit.
For both Jaison and Shibu, their newly acquired super-powers become both a blessing and curse as they struggle to come to terms with them. For Shibu they become a means to reaching Usha and when he frames the mysterious "Minnal Murali" after killing Usha's father in a rage, Jaison is forced into adopting his Minnal Murali persona to unravel the mess using his own superpowers.
He is helped in this by "Bruce Lee" Biji, a young woman who teaches martial arts to local children alongside preparing passport visa applications and who has no romantic inclinations toward Jaison, which is another interesting aspect of the film.
The mysterious death of Usha's father, a tailor in Jaison's father's shop, causes the villagers to panic, fearing that a terrorist is their midst following a theory put forward by the inept local police force, while the chief of police's second in command, who happens to be Jaison's brother in law, is determined to uncover the true identity of "Minnal Murali" and is led to believe that it is Jaison, though he lacks hard evidence, just a bruised ego after Jaison intervenes when he treats his wife roughly over a trivial incident.
To reveal much more of the plot would be a spoiler, suffice to say that the climax of the film is suitably spectacular and very well staged and the level of visual effects never goes beyond what feels totally believable within the framework of the plot and thanks to some top-notch performances by the leads that never drift into melodrama, in particular from Guru Somasundaram as "Shibu", the films' "villain", though he is by no means the stereotypical villain from superhero comics - this is man who has faced tragedy and perpetual defeat with no hope of escaping his karma.
In contrast, Jaison is not depicted as a 2 dimensional hero and his motivations mirror those of Shibu, far from being the village saviour he seeks an escape route to a better life but unlike Shibu he learns to come to terms with his loss of Bincy.
Any religious symbolism in the film is considerably downplayed though it is present if you look for it - it's just never so intrusive as to imply an overtly Christian viewpoint, even if the films' climax occurs in a church, and during one of many comedic moments a character crashes into a church hall during a sermon on the promised arrival of the Messiah.
Christian iconography is also present in the costume worn by Jaisons' actor father in the prologue where he is dressed like a Greek or Roman soldier, which references either St George or another of the saints who are popular local icons within the Kerala Christian communities.
Besides this, the name "Murali" is one of the names of Krishna, the Hindu deity, and suggests that there is considerable overlap between the different faiths that co-exist in India, in spite of recent political efforts to emphasise the dominance of a Hindu majority.
The other notable aspect of the film is the cinematography that makes full use of the lush rural Kerala environment and scenes set at a fun-fair at the films' climax with some artful grading that steers well clear of giving the film an obvious "comic book" look by boosting chroma levels, something that is a feature of too many films from Bollywood where post production techniques are used willy nilly without much thought.
If I have one tiny niggle about the film it's a line of rather unnecessary dialogue toward the end but the film recovers very quickly from that.
"Minnal Murali" is a film that will succeed in confounding your expectations of a superhero film in what, for me, is a very tired genre marked by an overuse of visual effects at the expense of characters that feel real and who you care about and I watched this film twice over two consecutive days, the first time with an English overdub - which is actually quite good - and subtitles and then in the original Malayalam (with my mother, who understands the language) with subtitles, which is quite rare for me, especially where fantasy films are concerned.
It's a film that carries a considerable charge - pun intended - with comedic moments and a genuine jaw-dropping moment or two along the way whilst simultaneously being smart, funny and engaging and perhaps bodes well for future efforts in the superhero and fantasy genre in Indian cinema.
There are some other similarities to both the "Krrish" series, Spielberg's "E.T" and what could be considered to have kicked off the whole contemporary superhero genre, "Superman", which is the idea of "Smallville" - ie a rural backwater / smalltown America where the hero comes of age.
In "Krrish" it's a sleepy town in the foothills of the Himalayas before the later films moved the action to Singapore (ie "Metropolis") and then Mumbai, and in the closing sequence of "Minnal Murali", Jaison stands atop the highest building left standing in his village, the church, pondering the future that lies ahead of him that may or may not move him from there to the big city and further adventures, though he does say that his village needs him.
With talk of an inevitable sequel in the works, let's hope that the filmmakers avoid the mistakes of previous efforts to spawn a franchise and don't ditch the USP of the film in favour of bigger and more ambitious effects sequences, slimmer characterizations and stereotypical situations.
"Minnal Murali", Dir: Basil Joseph, 2021
Streaming service: Netflix