Minnal Murali — streaming Friday on Netflix — is a rare superhero effort from India. While the Marvel Cinematic Universe has pushed itself deeper into local consciousness, from Avengers: Endgame becoming one of the highest-grossing movies in India to most titles offering dubs in four or five Indian languages, the country's many film industries have more or less ignored the ever-increasing domination of costumed vigilantes in today's pop culture environment. Set aside a fringe effort and a false advertisement, Minnal Murali marks the first superhero venture for the Malayalam film industry. It's (surprisingly) a first for Netflix in India too, even as the streamer literally grabs onto any superhero properties internationally. That shows the dearth of ideas.
Unfortunately, Minnal Murali tries to pack in too much, and fails to do justice to most of it. The Netflix movie — directed by Basil Joseph (Godha), and written by Arun Anirudhan (Padayottam) and feature debutant Justin Mathew — is designed as a superhero (and supervillain) origin story on the surface. But along the way, Minnal Murali crams in subplots about half a dozen other characters, which offer muted commentary on xenophobia, casteism, and religious strife. Most of these nonsensically drag on for what feels like an eternity. At 158 minutes, Minnal Murali is overlong by a mile.
More importantly, they have little substance to offer. The two-and-half hours of Minnal Murali aren't thankfully all about moving the plot forward — but its character-driven scenes are so lacklustre that I found myself craving more story. Most of its flashbacks are chock full of melodrama and people crying over their sad pasts, which gets unbearable very quickly. In the present, Minnal Murali is just too talky. It doesn't trust its audience. A character will summarise a scene that just occurred. A song or a voiceover (via a flashback) will dictate a character's feelings or mindset. And when it's incapable of writing scenes, Minnal Murali will just end up pivoting to a montage.
When it does let loose and get away from the drama, Minnal Murali fares comparatively better. For the most part, the Netflix film is all forced goofiness and terrible sad jokes (“Spider-Man got his powers from a spider bite. Did Batman get his powers from a cricket bat?”).
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But at times, it can be genuinely fun. In one musical sequence, the kids joyously react to Minnal Murali beating up policemen (while a kid enjoys himself by snatching coconuts out of the hands of every cop). The camera — lensed by Sameera Thahir (Bangalore Days) — reflects the joy and energy, in what feels like a very comic-book movie moment. The over-the-top tone works in another moment too, where the lighting goes full dramatic and pushes Minnal Murali into fantastical territory. And there are a couple of sincere and awe-inducing shots that actually work, even though you've seen variations of them a hundred times in other superhero movies.
Set in the 1990s in the tiny Kerala village of Kurukkanmoola, Minnal Murali is primarily the journey of two outsiders in the community. The protagonist is Jaison (Tovino Thomas, from Mayaanadhi), a tailor by family profession and a loser by choice. Though he possesses zero knowledge of the world outside, Jaison has set his heart on migrating to America, as he can't foresee a promising future where he has spent all his life. Plus, his love interest from college Bincy (Sneha Babu, from Ganagandharvan) has moved on from him and gotten engaged — on the advice of her policeman brother Saajan (Baiju Santhosh, from Pidikittapulli) who has an axe to grind with Jaison and walks around like he owns the village. He is the village sheriff.
On the other hand, we've the tea shop help Shibu (Guru Somasundaram, from 2016's Joker) as the antagonist. Ignored and mistreated by everyone in the village, Shibu finds solace in stalking his forever-crush Usha (Shelly Kishore) who has recently left her husband she once eloped with. She never noticed Shibu during their school days and she still doesn't. But while Jaison harbours dreams of a better future, a life like that is out of Shibu's grasp. Still, they do have things in common — in their outsider status and how they are both pining for a woman who doesn't want them or knows they exist. So when they are both struck by lightning on the same night, it feels like Minnal Murali is saying that it was their fate. It's poetic in a manner of speaking.
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Baiju Santhosh as Saajan (right) in Minnal Murali
Photo Credit: Netflix
And shockingly, neither of them dies. Instead, they are granted a variety of superpowers. This seems like a pointed message, though it's never convincingly portrayed by Minnal Murali. (It doesn't help those certain scenes and revelations are not in the order they ought to have been.)
Yes, it's a superhero movie — but the fact that lightning doesn't kill Jaison or Shibu suggests divine intervention. Clearly, a higher power meant to give these two mediocre men a second chance at life. Like improve and do better, guys. (Maybe don't be a creep, for one.) And though the path they start off on is not quite different, circumstances and their choices drive them apart. They are essentially two sides of the same coin. While Jaison realises he has more to give (with help from his superhero-loving nephew), Shibu is consumed by his desire for Usha (he thinks he loves her but all he really wants is for Usha to be his).
Minnal Murali would've been better off channelling itself more in this direction — but it has all manners of half-baked subplots that add little, kill narrative momentum, and never get you invested in them.
Saajan is among those, with the character hellbent on rubbing Jaison's nose in the dirt before a partial redemption towards the end. Saajan's deputy and Jaison's brother-in-law Pothan (Aju Varghese, from Adi Kapyare Kootamani) is abusive to his wife and lords over Jaison. Usha returns to her domineering brother Daasan (Harisree Asokan, from Ilayaraja) who decides what's best for her. And then there's martial arts instructor “Bruce Lee” Biji (newcomer Femina George) whose boyfriend quit on her because she hurt his fragile male ego once.
All these supporting characters — Biji is fit to be a sidekick, but that's left for a potential sequel — are given considerable time on Minnal Murali, but they are never really fleshed out. Worse, the Netflix movie's forced goofiness and the line delivery is grating. Just talk like adults and not like actors who know they are in a comedy movie.
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Femina George as Biji in Minnal Murali
Photo Credit: Harikrishnan P/Netflix
In the hands of a more astute director and with a leaner script that trimmed the fat, Minnal Murali could actually be a decent superhero movie for it had the building blocks. Adrift and clueless, Jaison the hero finds purpose in life after getting superpowers. But the Netflix film takes too long to get there, and the path isn't rewarding in itself. Shibu the villain could easily have been a guy who's just trying to do the right thing: provide for a woman who is suffering. But the way he is characterised and how Usha's ambivalence towards him is portrayed, that case is never made. If we don't feel for Shibu, he's not an anti-hero in our eyes.
Instead, Minnal Murali is overambitious to a fault and underconfident in how it spoon-feeds at times. Still, it's promising, for India could definitely do with some local superheroes. (The Thor and Spider-Man franchises have shown that it's worth another swing with new blood.) That said, while Indians are going ga-ga over American superheroes — Spider-Man: No Way Home has gotten off to a tremendous start at the box office — they have previously shown little interest in domestic fare. Vikramaditya Motwane's 2018 effort, Bhavesh Joshi Superhero, failed commercially (and nearly ended the career of its star Harsh Varrdhan Kapoor). On top of that, Netflix India has never made a sequel to any of its movies. It will take something completely unexpected for a Minnal Murali 2 to happen.
Minnal Murali is out Friday, December 24 at 1:30pm IST on Netflix worldwide. In India, Minnal Murali is available in Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Hindi, and English.