Dear Marvel, you can make a solid superhero movie without trips to space, time travel, and celestial beings. Just look at Minnal Murali. The Malayalam-language film, which released on Dec. 24, is India’s first original superhero story.
Two flawed, heartbroken men are struck by lightning at the same moment. Both of them get similar powers, like super strength, heightened hearing, telekinesis, and the ability to run at Flash-like speeds. The choices they make creates a hero out of one and turns the other into a villain—and thus the quintessential good versus evil fight ensues. But Minnal Murali‘s similarities to the larger-than-life superheroes ends at this basic premise. The story and its telling are rooted in local culture.
Originally made for the silver screen, the Netflix release may have given the movie a bigger audience than it could’ve imagined. It was dubbed in Hindi, English, Tamil, Telugu, and Kannada, and subtitled in 38 languages.
A mere two days after its release, Minnal Murali topped the list of most-watched films in four countries—India, Oman, Qatar, and the UAE—and was in the top 10 most-watched non-English movies in 11 countries. It racked up nearly 6 million hours of viewership in that time frame.
An original Indian superhero
For much of the movie, Jaison, a young tailor from the village of Kurukkanmoola, portrayed by Tovino Thomas, is fighting cops and corruption to escape his village life and migrate to America.
Meanwhile, Shibu, played by Guru Somasundaram, switches from vulnerable and love-struck to vengeful in a blink of an eye, and has his own elaborate backstory of lost love, social isolation, and mental illness.
The movie, set in rural Kerala in the 1990s, shows its protaganist and antagonist executing action sequences while donning mundus—rectangular garments tied around the waist—and fashioning masks from jute sacks, cotton towels, or kids’ costumes’. In fact, Minnal’s navy and red latex suit with the lightning bolt on the chest only makes its debut in the climax.
And unlike Batman and Joker, these two aren’t out to destroy their Gotham City equivalent in a war of oneupmanship.
“Americans are used to comics and superheroes. In our culture, save for Shaktiman, we depend on mythical superheroes like Hanuman and Ram,” says director Basil Joseph. “There’s no template for a desi, homegrown superhero. Since we’re in the early stages of creating a superhero, we wanted to make ours grounded and relatable.”
The homegrown story is also laden with broader societal issues and flaws in southern India. For instance, the tropes of pitting a fair-skinned hero against a darker-skinned villain, depicting mental illness as evil, and demonizing women who exercise agency, have been criticized by some. If the movie is turned into a franchise, these may be have to be handled with greater care.
Kerala’s resilient film industry
In addition to the social drama of the superhero story, the technical achievements of vast locations, large crowds, and strong VFX sequences, could rival the Spidermans and Batmans of the west. This becomes all the more impressive when you consider that Minnal Murali has been in the making since before the covid-19 outbreak. It’s been through multiple lockdowns and a set was even vandalized.
The Kerala film industry has always had innovative storytelling, managed tight budgets well, and turned projects around quickly. It was the fastest to bounce back during covid. And even before this streaming hit, movies from Kerala were lauded for being socially relevant and technically accomplished.
Bollywood couldn’t get superheroes right
Every year, Bollywood makes almost 800 movies. The Malayalam industry’s yearly movie releases barely scrape 200. And yet, Minnal Murali has done what the mainstream Hindi film industry couldn’t do for years, even with its big budgets and big stars.
For instance, the Hrithik Roshan-starring Krrish franchise, seemingly inspired by Steven Spielberg’s ET, was an ultimately uninspiring outing with poor costume design, an unclear origin story, and plot lines and scenes ripped off from other Hollywood superhero movies. Shah Rukh Khan‘s big-budget sci-fi superhero film Ra.One won accolades for its ahead-of-the-times VFX, but nothing else left a mark.
Also, both Roshan and Khan were seen dancing to peppy numbers in their movies. More than once. Thankfully, Tovino doesn’t.