“It took us nearly four months to crack the antagonist character, Shibu, played by Guru Somasundaram in Minnal Murali. It was a challenging process to develop a strong and convincing villain in a village setup,” writers Arun Anirudhan and Justin Mathew tell Silverscreen India.
Directed by Basil Joseph and produced by Sophia Paul, Minnal Murali is the first superhero film in Malayalam cinema. Featuring Tovino Thomas and Somasundaram, the film is the origin story of Jaison, an ordinary man who turns into the titular superhero after being struck by a bolt of lightning, which bestows him with special powers.
Minnal Murali released worldwide on Netflix on Friday to positive responses from both critics and the audience.
Shortly after the film’s release, Arun and Justin speak to Silverscreen India at length about their vision for Minnal Murali. Flooded with congratulatory messages and calls, the writer duo is clearly overwhelmed with great joy and excitement as they discuss creating Malayalam’s first superhero film.
The genesis of Minnal Murali
In 2018, Arun saw a meme featuring Batman draped in a lungi and armed with a vettuval (sword). That was the ‘Eureka’ moment, he tells us.
“How would it be to have a superhero from Kerala, I wondered. I came up with a one-liner and chose Minnal Murali as the title,” says Arun. “During the post-production of my previous film Padayottam, I got an opportunity to tell Basil Joseph my idea. He and his wife expressed interest in the subject and encouraged me to work on it.”
In November 2018, Basil roped in Justin to work on the script with Arun.
Research and writing process
While Arun is a fan of superhero movies, Justin is more inclined towards drama films. As a first step, Basil told Arun to watch superhero films across languages, while Justin was asked to watch classic Malayalam drama films of KG George, Padmarajan and Bharathan.
“Our main idea was to place the film in a village in a rooted setup. We thought the blend of native drama with superhero elements would strike the right chords with the audience. And we believe that approach is what created a strong foundation for Minnal Murali,” Justin explains.
“We have seen a lot of superhero films in which the protagonist saves people in cities and towns. So we thought of placing the story in a rural setting as it would be relatable to the native audience. Also, village landscapes give a pleasant visual experience. So we created a fantasy village called Kurukkanmoola,” the duo adds.
While they did not find any concrete references on creating a localised superhero, Justin reveals that the Shibu character is loosely inspired by one played by KB Ganesh Kumar in the 1985 film Irakal.
Arun tells us that he and Justin would both write their versions of each scene and then sit with Basil for a discussion. The best version of the two would be picked up and worked on further.
The final script was locked in November 2019.
Creating the villain
“Until we penned Shibu’s character, the story was kind of flat,” says Arun, adding that writing the antagonist, while quite a challenge, really elevated the story.
Arun notes that the process was challenging for various reasons. “The usual antagonists in superhero films are extremely powerful, sometimes good looking and well-built. But we could not apply that format because of the setting of our story. So we worked hard and brought in social and emotional elements that force Shibu to take evil’s way. We felt adding these factors to his character would convince the audience that he has the ability to destroy the village.”
He also adds that Basil directed them to write backstories for all the main players to provide each with an in-depth character arc.
The casting of Shibu was cruicial and the team considered many artists from the Malayalam industry without finding the right actor. That’s when one of the associates, Shivaprasad, suggested Guru Somasundaram’s name. “We were all convinced he was the right choice and no one else could have pulled off Shibu’s role the way he did,” says Arun. “We decided to portray him as a Tamil native in the film so he could speak in Tamil primarily with bits and pieces of Malayalam. We made this decision because sometimes dubbing won’t quite convey the emotions and we also didn’t want to affect his dialogue delivery.”
The filming process
Minnal Murali went on floors in December 2019. It was shot for around 111 days in Wayanad, Vagamon, Muvattupuzha, parts of Karnataka, and in a studio in Kochi. The shooting process was disrupted a few times due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the vandalism of a church set.
“We shot a lot of scenes with practical effects and the art department played a significant role in making it possible. Some complex sequences were done with VFX,” the duo says.
Noting that the film’s songs and their placement have been particularly appreciated, they add, “Kudos to Basil for his ace filmmaking which seamlessly incorporated the songs into the narrative.” The songs for the film were composed by Shaan Rahman and Sushin Shyam, with Shyam also composing the background score.
The stunt sequences in Minnal Murali were choreographed by Vlad Rimburg, who has worked as a co-stunt coordinator on DC Entertainment productions. Arun tells us that the stunt director did pre-visualisation of the action scenes three months before the shoot.
On the preparations of the lead actor, they say, “Tovino put on weight for the superhero role and he was given physical training by Akthar Ali. Though there were breaks in between the shoot, Tovino was consistent and maintained his body throughout. Also, during one of the breaks, he did a film called Kala and when he came back to Minnal Murali, Tovino played the role of Jaison’s father, Martin, with the look he had in Kala.”
OTT release and success
While the film was initially written with a theatrical release in mind, the writer duo says the Netflix release is the best thing that could have happened to Minnal Murali. With the OTT release, the film has reached audiences across 150 countries which would have not been possible with a theatrical release, they point out. The film is currently streaming in six languages.
“We believe Minnal Murali is a benchmark and hope it will encourage upcoming filmmakers to dream big. Good content will always be welcomed by the audience,” the duo says. “We are grateful to our producer Sophia Paul for her constant trust in us. We also feel that the success of Minnal Murali is because of the unique idea of a homegrown superhero and the stellar performances of Tovino and Guru Somasundaram.”
When asked if there will be a sequel or further films set in the Minnal Murali universe in the future, the writers only say guardedly, “Maybe, maybe not! For that, we have to write a script better than Minnal Murali and that is a herculean task.”