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Minnal Murali: When a superhero in a mundu and a mask saves the day

Long before actor Tovino Thomas turned a superhero in Minnal Murali, he quit a dreary corporate job, faced rejections and did multiple bit roles

Written by Alaka Sahani | New Delhi |
December 28, 2021 11:07:24 am
Tovino-Thomas-eyeKerala-based actor Tovino Thomas plays the titular superhero in the just-released Malayalam movie Minnal Murali, directed by Basil Joseph.

Now that my daughter Izza believes I’m a superhero, I fear one day she might push me off the balcony to test my superpowers,” says actor Tovino Thomas. Weeks prior to Minnal Murali’s release on Netflix last week, the actor and its director Basil Joseph showed five-year-old Izza the blockbuster film, where Thomas plays Jaison, a bumbling tailor, who acquires superpowers when struck by lightning. With Izza convinced, they knew they had a winner.

MinnalMurali_Netflix_6217 A still from Minnal Murali, a movie about an ordinary man who gains extraordinary power.

So, what does it take to create a credible homegrown superhero? A strong story, a well-written script, a hard-working team, and, most importantly, a dedicated actor. Joseph shared his idea about “a Malayalam superhero movie” with Thomas during a car ride in 2018; the actor came on board instantly. The story, set in an imaginary village in Kerala, took a couple of years to be developed. Though Thomas was involved with the process of building Minnal Murali’s world and characters, he was still blown away by the final draft. “The writers, Justin Matthew and Arun Anirudhan, worked so hard on it. They did an online script-writing course and referred to several superhero books. Yet, if you take out the superhero element from the film, it’s still a very good script,” says the actor. Since they didn’t have a huge budget, humour and emotions drive this story.

With Minnal Murali, a spectacular homegrown superhero saga, Malayalam cinema continues to pushes the boundary. In the recent years, Malayalam cinema has been in focus for taking risks and experimenting to deliver some of the best Indian titles across genres. Movies such as Bangalore Days (2014), Kammatipaadam (2016) Maheshinte Prathikaaram (2016), Angamaly Diaries (2017), Kumbalangi Nights (2019), Moothon (2019), The Great Indian Kitchen (2021), Joji (2021) and Nayattu (2021) have dabbled with different themes and narrative styles to tell stories that are local but resonate with wider audience.

As the protagonist who undergoes an unexpected transformation, Thomas had his task cut out. “In the span of two years, we shot for 111 days through lockdowns and restrictions. Throughout I had to maintain my physique and look for continuity,” says the 32-year-old. The requirements for the role kept changing. “Initially, my character Jaison had to look a bit chubby to be relatable as a common man. My body had to be more athletic as Jaison becomes confident of his superpowers so that people should not say aaeeye when they see me in a superhero suit,” the actor says, about the year-end release. By Thomas’s admission, regimented preparation for the role has changed his life.

Thomas, however, took a major life-altering step much before this, in November 2011. Though he didn’t have any industry connection or experience in acting, he decided to quit his job as a software engineer at an MNC in Chennai. “The thought of working in a cubicle with a laptop and landline was depressing. Before resigning, I called my father. Being a lawyer, he came up with several points on why I should not quit my job. I countered his points. He got tired and said: ‘Do what you want’,” recalls Thomas. Today, his proud father cries every time he watches his movies.

During his early days in the industry, Thomas found a “godfather” in his elder brother Tingston Thomas. “From his Rs 9,000 salary, he used to give me Rs 4,000 every month for my expenses,” the actor recalls. Finding a foothold in the film world was not easy. “I faced rejections, even insult. But that kept the fire in me burning. Initially, I played small roles. Then, graduated to supporting roles. It’s ABCD (2013) that gave me visibility. But I consider Ennu Ninte Moideen (2015), for which I got a lot of appreciation, to be my first big break,” says the actor, whose talked-about movies include Guppy (2016), Godha (2017) and And The Oscar Goes to (2019).

MinnalMurali_Netflix_3045 A still from Minnal Murali, a homegrown superhero movie, that’s streaming on Netflix.

Over the years, Thomas has consolidated his position as a dependable actor who doesn’t shy away from playing a range of characters. He plays the protagonist in Mayanadhi (2017) that’s an exploration of intense love; he is a compassionate multi-billionaire in Uyare (2019); and in Kaanekkaane (2021) his character grapples with guilt. “I choose a project based on the script, its director, and the scope of acting that it offers me,” says Thomas. Sometimes there are other factors that influence his decision. He did a cameo in Kurup (2021) as his friends were working on it. He played a negative character in Maari 2 (2018) where he shared the screen with Dhanush. His choice of roles and dedication to his craft, irrespective of screen time, has been instrumental in carving a space for him in contemporary Malayalam cinema which has several fine actors such as Fahadh Faasil, Dulquer Salmaan and Nivin Pauly.

Last year, his deep love for cinema nudged him to turn producer. “I’m an art lover, not a businessman. I can’t ask a producer to take a risk and fund an experimental movie. I produce such movies with like-minded people,” says Thomas, who produced and acted in Kilometers and Kilometers (2020) and will be producing Sanal Kumar Sasidharan’s next. He also produced and acted in Kaala (2021). Though it received favourable reviews, it didn’t make a profit.

Since Minnal Murali is expected to win him pan-India visibility, is he open to acting in other language movies than Malayalam? “I don’t want to do other language films just for the sake of it. The character I play should be important. My roots are in Malayalam cinema, which will continue to make good movies,” says Thomas and adds, “If we can enjoy a Spanish or Korean movie, why can’t they watch a Malayalam movie.”

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