Minnal Murali (2021)

Basil Joseph’s 2021 superhero film puts an Indian spin on the genre with Tovino Thomas donning a costume and vaunting his superpowers in a small village in Kerala. The film is a slow burn, with the first half setting the scene and carefully developing the characters of Jaison (Tovino Thomas), his nemesis Shibu (Guru Somasundaram) and their various friends and neighbours in Kurukkanmoola. The film is as much a character study as an action adventure, and the beauty of Minnal Murali is that works as both. There is no Hollywood-style pure good and evil here either, just shades of grey that move and shift as circumstances change and events unfold, which makes for a more interesting film.

The story starts with a fire at a festival where a theatre group is performing in front of the village. A young boy sees his actor father consumed by the fire in front of his eyes which foreshadows the spectre of fire that returns a number of times in the film. In the present day, Jaison is a tailor living with his adopted family father Varky (P. Balachandran), foster sister Jesmi (Arya Salim), her abusive husband PC Siby Pothan (Aju Varghese) and their son Josemon (Vasisht Umesh). Also working in the tailor shop is Daasan (Harisree Ashokan), who is struggling to look after his sister Usha (Shelly Kishore) and her daughter who needs expensive medical treatment. Usha has recently returned to Kurukkanmoola after separating from her husband and there are mixed reactions in the village to her presence. Most of the men look at her as a prospective partner and approach Daasan with various proposals. In his turn, Daashan tries to barter Usha to the highest bidder, however this is to pay off her medical bills so Daashan isn’t quite as heartless as he might appear. 

Initially Jaison is planning to head to the USA, and is getting some photos for his passport application when he is lauded on his fashion sense – which includes chinos and a crucifix earing. I’m guessing that either the village is stuck in a timewarp or the film is set in the eighties, as Jaison doesn’t fit the bill as a ‘fashion icon’ by today’s standards, and probably not in the eighties either! Jaison is in love with Bincy Antony (Sneha Babu) but her father vehemently disproves of the match and in the process of telling Jaison how unsuitable he is, reveals that Jaison is an orphan and that it was his father who was killed in the opening sequences. Since Bincy’s father is in charge of the local police station, this leads to further harassment and ridicule of Jaison from the police force as SI Antony (Baiju) continues to warn him away from his daughter. What is strange is that Bincy doesn’t seem in the slightest bit bothered by this dismissal of her beau, and immediately arranges to marry Aneesh (Jude Anthany Joseph), who himself is the ex-boyfriend of Jaison’s friend ‘Bruce Lee’ Biji (Femina George). Bincy’s motives and true feelings are kept opaque, and in fact she practically disappears from the film in the second half. The interconnectedness of the village relationships works well to showcase the problems of living in a small town where everyone knows (or thinks they know) everything about everyone else. Despite the superhero aspect, this keeps the characters all grounded in reality, while the village mentality ensures that even superpowers can’t get Jaison what he really wants.

Shortly after the revelation about Jaison and his dismissal as Bincy’s suitor, Jaison and Shibu are both struck by lightning. This is the event that gives them their superpowers but there are distinct differences in what happens after they are struck. Shibu is alone, while Jaison is rushed to the hospital by his family. This proves key in how they each develop and use their powers in the events that follow. While both men are orphans with grievances centred in the village, the path they each follow diverges rapidly when they are suddenly given the power to make things happen. They both initially use their powers for selfish reasons, but it doesn’t take long for Jaison to realise he can actually become a hero, while Shibu seems unable to see anything but Usha and will do anything to ensure she becomes his.

Naturally superheros and villains need to have costumes, and this again defines the personalities of the two men. Initially Shibu conceals his identity using a mask taken from a scarecrow, which later becomes his supervillain costume. Jaison has the advantage of being a tailor, but it still takes him a while to develop his costume and therefore his identity, which echoes his uncertainty about which path to follow. Eventually though he gets it right with a nifty red and blue skin suit that echoes the heroes he has seen in American comics. 

While Tovino Thomas is excellent as Jaison, Guru Somasundaram is simply brilliant as Shibu. He brings a subtle blend of vulnerability and instability to the character and makes it clear that the abuse and treatment he is subjected to by the villagers shapes his actions. He’s dismissed by the other villagers as essentially ‘other’ – Tamil, insane, orphan and generally troublesome, which explains why he fights back when he realises that suddenly, he is the one with power. The flashbacks to his past are used to garner sympathy for his character, despite his actions in the present, and these work well to give an understanding of why Shibu acts the way he does. It’s a great performance and Guru Somasundaram succeeds in making his mostly unappealing character more sympathetic than first appearances would suggest. Tovino’s Jaison on the other hand hasn’t had the same level of prejudice but instead has to deal with a significant amount of immaturity and selfishness to become the hero of the hour when needed. The transformation is well done and Tovino Thomas does a good job in showing his emotions during all of the upheavals his character faces, all with plenty of charm.

I also really loved the character of Biji, and Femina George is excellent as the kick-ass heroine who can fight her own battles. It’s more unusual to have a female lead who takes no BS, especially one who literally kicks her cheating fiancée out of her dojo and fights her own battles, but Biji fits into the storyline well. I love how it’s Biji who fights back whern she find out about Aneesh and Bincy, while Jaison is the one who collapses in a sobbing and incoherent mess. Biji is key to defeating Shibu’s plans, and I really like that it takes the superhero and the ‘normal’ woman working together to defeat evil. Thank you too to writers Arun Anirudhan and Justin Mathew who didn’t add a romance between Biji and Jaison, which wouldn’t have worked at all. Their camaraderie is more natural and fits much better into the storyline as they work together to combat Shibu’s destruction. 

There isn’t a lot of action in the film and it does take a while for Shibu and Jaison to meet and face off, but that leaves more time for the character development which adds more layers to the story. I really enjoyed Minnal Murali and recommend it as a film that reconsiders who are the real villains and heroes in the story. 4 stars.

Maara (2021)

Dhilip Kumar’s interpretation of the 2015 Malayalam film Charlie takes the main characters and gives them both more maturity and more of a backstory. While this makes the film more grounded than Charlie, it does remove a lot of the fantasy feel and while on one hand that makes for a more complete drama, I still missed the magic. Maara has a sharper story, with more believable characters and a neater ending. But without the fairy tale element, the story is more pedestrian, the focus has shifted more towards the searches for certain characters and much of the charm is lost.  However, Maara looks just as stunning as Charlie, with excellent cinematography from Dinesh Krishnan and Karthik Muthukumar, while Ghibran’s music is beautiful and suits the film perfectly. With a more mature plot and some excellent performances from the support cast, Maara is more than a remake and definitely worth watching, even if you have already seen the original.

The film begins with a young Paaru hearing a story from a kindly fellow traveller while on a bus. Fast forward a few years and Paaru (Shraddha Srinath) is attending a family engagement where pressure is brought on her to finalise her own wedding plans. Refusing to be drawn into a relationship where her heart is not engaged, Paaru escapes to Kerala and finds a place to stay in a small coastal town.

The apartment has previously been the living space for the elusive Maara (Madhavan) who has left his mark on the town by painting large murals on every available space. The paintings echo the story Paaru heard as a child and she is at once intrigued as no-one else has ever shown any knowledge of the story at all.

Maara tends to flit in and out of the town, helping those in need including a prostitute Selvi (Abhirami) and her daughter Rani (Nakshathra Prashant). Paaru finds a comic book which details Maara’s night out with a thief and is impelled to find out what happened after the story stops at a dramatic point in the tale. As she becomes more obsessed with finding Maara she also finds more mysteries which she uses as a means of avoiding her own problems with her family. Where Maara differs from the original is that we are shown more of his side of the story. The film shows Maara as a child and how he befriends Vellaiya (Moulee) and starts to turn his own nomadic existence into a search for Vella’s lost love Meenakshi. As she searches for Maara, Paaru meets the people who have impacted his life, the thief (Alexander Babu), the fisherman Chokku (Guru Somasundaram) and Doctor Kani (Sshivada), finally finding Vellaiya and the story of his lost love.

The story of Maara is more of a search for Meenakshi rather than a voyage of self-discovery for Paaru. While all the same elements from the original film appear, they are tied more neatly into the background story, and Paaru’s own issues fade into the background as a result. Shraddha’s Paaru is also more sensible and grounded than Parvathy’s Tessa which ultimately makes her a less interesting character, despite Shraddha’s impressive acting chops. Madhavan’s Maara is also less interesting than Charlie for much the same reasons. Despite having plenty of charm, there isn’t the same unpredictability or zaniness that characterised Dulquer Salman’s Charlie. It makes the film seem smaller, less worldly and more a standard drama than an epic love story.

I do think that Maara suffers when compared to Charlie. When considered as a stand-alone film, it’s good and engaging. There are interesting characters, great performances from Shraddha, Madhavan, Moulee and the supporting cast and the story is well told. The murals are gorgeous and add colour and life to proceedings, while the scenery is captured in amazing detail throughout. The social commentary is still there and is probably more carefully developed in Maara, making more of an impact in the end. However, there is little chemistry between Paaru and the elusive Maara and at times the film seems in danger of drifting rather too much. Paaru is simply a way to follow the steps to find Maara and therefore Vellaiya, and we don’t get much insight into why she is so fiercely independent. Like some of the scenes, she too seems to be drifting rather than firmly taking control of her life. I wanted to see more of her thoughts rather than seeing her character simply through her search for Maara.

For me, Madhavan seems a tad too hearty and solid to be an itinerant painter. Maara is less whimsical than his Malayalam counterpart and I found that this gave the character a completely different vibe that didn’t quite gel with parts of the story. Maara is more responsible. He’s less outraged and more resigned. Knowing more of his background story makes him a less elusive and mystical character and the story doesn’t soar but instead, like the bus and train that Paaru and Maara use to travel at the start, merely journeys along to the final destination. It’s still a good story and an engaging film but I did miss the fairy tale element here. I did enjoy the music and the sumptuous colour palate used throughout the film. Great subtitles from rekhs make it easy to follow the story and the animation at the start is some of the best I’ve seen. There is certainly much to enjoy here and despite my quibbles above, I did still love the film.

Overall, Maara is a more complete and polished tale than Charlie, but be aware that it does lack some of the magic. If you haven’t seen Charlie then this is definitely well worth a watch and is an excellent story that is well told. Even for fans of the Malayalam original, I think this different approach gives a whole new understanding of that film too. 4 stars.