One-line review: Entertainment (not CGI) fuels this smashing Malayalam superhero movie.

Minnal Murali, Kerala’s first superhero movie, is a pan-Indian and global hit. Netflix almost over-promoted the film, but MM lives up to the hype. This is because, at its core, MM is a wholesome family entertainer that would have worked even without the superhero elements. Malayalam movies are astonishingly low budget (less than $20 m for this movie), and CGI would have to be used sparingly. Therefore, director Basil Joseph and his writers Arun Anirudhan and Justin Thomas threw all their energies into writing the script (forty-plus drafts preceded the final version).

On the surface, Minnal Murali is an out-and-out entertainer. But what makes it a phenomenon (it’s among the top ten most-watched Indian films on Netflix) is its repeated watchability, thanks to the use of subtle layering throughout the film. Director Basil Joseph points out that every motif in the movie is well thought out and has multiple meanings. For example, the crow, an oft-used symbol of doom, also appears in Minnal Murali in many scenes with the villain. But here, the crow also symbolizes the villain’s ostracization for being vile and disgusting. Like the crow, he feeds off scraps, is shooed away, but is a survivor. And he uses a scarecrow mask.  

The plot is about two men in a tiny village Kurukkan Moola acquiring superpowers after being hit by lightning on the same night, a special night of rare planetary alignments. One eventually becomes a superhero, and the other the supervillain. But the film makes us ponder whether good and evil are innate or influenced by one’s circumstances. The film does this by taking its time to tell us the backstories of these two men. The spoiled, dimwit, stylish, directionless tailor Jaison’s (Tovino Thomas) only dream is to migrate to the US. Shibu (Guru Somasundaram) is the vagabond, unkempt tea shop worker, an orphan whose mother died from madness. The night when lightning strikes is also significant for both men emotionally. Jaison’s heartbroken because his girlfriend dumps him for a more promising beau, while Shibu’s world is bright again as his childhood sweetheart is back in the village after being abandoned by her husband.

Both men initially try out their superpowers tentatively in their routine activities. Jaison tries to hit a mango from a distance, stops a moving fan in his bedroom, walks away with all the shooting prizes at the local fair, and falls when he tries to fly. He even gets schooled on American superheroes by his precocious nephew and sidekick, Josemon. Their relationship is the sweet, emotional core of the film. Shibu realizes he can stop things in midair, and pull down walls.

Soon both men are forced to use their superpowers for personal justice. Jaison beats up the local cops who roughed up his adoptive father. The fight is a song sequence with one hilarious gag after another, aided by the pulsating Michael Jackson-inspired music. As director Joseph points out, this is a comic fight since the cops in the film are small-time bumbling cops, and it would seem out of place and unnecessary for Jaison to use his full powers on them. Jaison also leaves his signature, Minnal Murali, on the scene for the first time. It is the title of his birth father’s last play, about the superhero saving the downtrodden. Shibu on the other hand uses his superpowers to rob a bank to help his sweetheart Usha pay for her daughter’s surgery.

Things take a serious turn when Shibu turns sinister when Usha’s brother insults him calling him a madman unworthy of his sister’s hand. He then begins killing everyone standing in his path to attaining Usha. He cleverly uses the Minnal Murali motif to throw people off track. When Jaison finally confronts his nemesis, Shibu assures him that he won’t create any trouble and will leave the village for good with Usha. He finds Usha waiting for him in his house; she has come to voluntarily after realizing the extent of his love for her. But Shibu’s joy is short-lived because the villagers suspecting he is Minnal Murali, attack him with fire (a recurring theme in the film), tragically killing Usha and her daughter. Shibu then unravels as the supervillain and is determined to burn down the village. The real Minnal Murali then emerges as the superhero in costume, Jaison if after all a tailor. The film’s climax is a tad underwhelming and uses the traditional superhero tropes. But the last scene where Minnal Murali uses a St. George’s spear stunt is powerful, and a call back to the first scene in the movie where we see St George.           

The film works because every character is well-rounded. Basil Joseph wanted the writers to have a backstory for every character. Even when the action scenes kick in, the film never loses its emotional and humorous touch. Guru Somasundaram, a veteran Tamil theater, and film actor is suddenly catapulted to fame for his stellar performance as Shibu. He is a casting coup, and the villain’s identity was kept a secret until the movie’s release, keeping the audiences guessing about what to expect. As reviewer B Ranjan rightly points out, Shibu’s character arc allows the actor to shine, but Tovino Thomas as Minnal Murali (Jaison) holds the film together. The reviewer uses the analogy of Rain Man, where Dustin Hoffman walked away with all the acting accolades, but he could not have shined without Tom Cruise’s steady counterpoint.

Tovino is a perfect choice as the likable superhero, and he has the right amount of charm, comic timing, acting chops, and fighting skills. Little Vashisht, who plays his friend, philosopher, guide, nephew, Josemon, is another casting coup. He has a meaty and sassy role which could quickly become annoying in the hands of a lesser child actor and director. There are many memorable roles, Shelly Kishore as Usha, Shibu’s eternal love, and the cops who expertly tread the fine line between caricature and believability.

Minnal Murali is also noteworthy for having a female producer, Sophia Paul. MM is all set to become a franchise, with fans already speculating about part 2’s characters. Shaan Rahman and Sushin Shyam’s pulsating music with the eighties swag energizes and elevates the film. 

 Why you must watch it. To see how drama, slapstick, great performances, and some CGI can create a superhero movie that’s way more than the sum of its parts.    

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