I was destined to produce 'Minnal Murali': Sophia Paul

Image Credit : Special Arrangement/Manorama Online

Sophia Paul can’t be happier. 'Minnal Murali' turned out to be everything she foresaw and more. Even before Basil Joseph had come to 'Minnal Murali', Sophia had already made up her mind to produce the film from the time she heard the story. With the local superhero being welcomed with open arms, producer Sophia Paul documents the journey of 'Minnal Murali' to Manorama Online.

The beginning of Minnal Murali
It was during Padayottam’s Middle east release in Dubai that the film’s writer Arun first told me the story of 'Minnal Murali'. He said he has a local superhero story in mind, and he was planning to call it Njan Minnal Murali. Since both my children were superhero fans, the minute they heard the catchy title, they insisted that I say yes to the project. So I immediately gave my nod to the project. Then the story hadn’t really developed, and Arun had said that he really need the right director to help with developing the story. So that one-liner was all that convinced me to give my green signal to the project. That’s how project 'Minnal Murali' began.

Basil Joseph seemed an obvious choice
Basil has acted in 'Padayottam'. At that time we were planning a project together. Since Arun had already discussed the one-liner with Basil, it was easier for me to put forward the idea to him. “I am interested in the project, ma’am. When you come to India, we will have a talk,” he assured me. During my next visit to Kerala, we had a detailed discussion and that’s when Basil suggested that we need to rope in one more writer for the film. That’s how Justin joined the project. 'Minnal Murali' began in 2018 August.

The slight change in the initial story
The story you see now isn’t what we heard initially. A lot of changes have been made. But our hero was always a local superhero. We were sure we wanted our superhero to be someone who was familiar to us, a regular guy you keep seeing around. We didn’t want to follow the typical American superhero format. Our superhero was a village lad who suddenly gets superpowers and how he deals with them. Since Keralites were a very cinema erudite crowd who were exposed to all kinds of cinema, we felt they wouldn’t be receptive to a copy of a typical American superhero film. Just like that our brainstorming sessions and pre-production took a year.

In our house, listening to cinema stories is a family event. My sons, their wives, and my husband, all sit together and eventually decide. I am very particular about their involvement in the project. Since we were settled in Dubai, Basil and the writers were flown to Dubai. When the script was fully written, Basil narrated us animatedly, along with the background music. The narration was so fascinating that we were already in the film. Looking at Basil’s confidence, we didn’t have any apprehensions about its viability. The final product also didn’t have many alterations. In Dec 2019, we started shooting.

Why did they remove the teaser BGM?
That music was only composed for the teaser and was never intended for the film. But the minute we heard Shaan’s composition, we knew it will be a huge hit. But since the climax was different it wasn’t possible to accommodate that music. That’s why we asked Sushin to provide the music. But Shaan’s music really helped in the promotion of the film. It became so popular that so many people put on the costume of 'Minnal Murali', recorded that music, and send it to us. Having said that so much hype can really create anxiety for a producer. We still don’t know how it will be received by the audience. It was scheduled to be a 2020 Onam release, but due to Covid, we had to postpone it. So we just released a teaser on Onam.

It was during 'Minnal Murali' that our respect and love for Tovino grew. It was overwhelming to see the actor’s hard work and dedication. Most of the shoots were at night and the unit will disperse only in the morning. But Tovino would still be up, doing his workouts. Because that superhero costume required a certain fitness and fluctuating weight gain can really affect the costume fitting. So he would follow a strict workout regime and diet to maintain himself. When we saw Tovi in that superhero costume, we felt he was born to be 'Minnal Murali'. He was that perfect as a superhero. We really didn’t think of anyone else as 'Minnal Murali'. He was the first choice for all of us and we were sure the film will be a turning point in his career.

Crisis management
Not that it was all hunky-dory all the time. We had to deal with a lot of crisis situations during the making of the film. During such tough times, my husband Paul was a great source of support and strength for me and my children. He is the one who provides the finances for the film. And he would remind us that such unfortunate events aren’t really our fault and that Covid would have affected all of us. His unstinted support helped us to wade unharmed through muddy waters.
When they vandalized the sets
Once the Wayanad portions were canned, they started designing a set at Kaladi, Aluva. In between, I had taken a break and left for Dubai. By the time I booked my return ticket, the set was almost ready. The entire crew was assembled there, and we were excited about resuming the shoot within a week. We were planning to make it an Onam release. But the pandemic, which also meant theatres were ordered to shut down, had put us in jeopardy. It was still okay if we hadn’t created the set.

And we had to wait for a year more to restart shooting. But looking back we think perhaps this was the film’s destiny because we eventually got a much bigger and beautiful space to construct our set. The climax was shot in 20 days and though tense we were all in a festive mood. Meanwhile, covid cases were increasing and we wanted to make sure the junior artists who were hired for the climax were safe. We all worked like one family and the results are there for all to see. We have left those bad days behind us.

The focus was only on 'Minnal Murali'
As a rule, I only do one film at a time. I might commit to a new film, but the shooting will start only after the current project is done. 'Minnal Murali' was a big project, and it was important that we were all thoroughly invested in the project.

Theatre miss
Though 'Minnal Murali' was made for the theatres, there was a limit to our waiting period. When we decided to give the film for OTT, theatres were still closed. But we are quite happy about this decision as it 'Minnal Murali' global reach. True, it was a huge theatre miss. Compared to Malayalam cinema’s geography and economics this is a humongous release and reach. Netflix went out of the way to promote it and take it to a global platform. Netflix loved the film and said after Mr. India this was one superhero film they loved. That was a huge honour for us. They would keep us updated about the promotions. It was heartening to watch our film getting so much global reach.

Their promotion with Yuvraj Singh and Tovino Thomas really helped in giving a wider reach to the film. 'Minnal Murali' is a moment of pride for Malayalam cinema. Even now the film tops the Netflix India and UAE List. And holds second place in other countries. It was great to get messages from artists I have not met, from other industries. I haven’t really thought how it would have turned out if the film got a theatrical release. This film has got the maximum reach and that’s what matters most. We are so happy.

'Minnal Murali' second part
We are planning something on those lines. But nothing is concrete for now. Right now we are in the midst of celebrating the success of 'Minnal Murali'. We have enough time to think of a second part. There are those who are saying that there is one more person who got stuck by lightning. Even predicting the story of the sequel. All these conversations are actually making us happy. In a way, it shows how much people have loved the film.

We knew the villain will be a hit
Even during the making of the film, we were confident about Guru’s performance. My eyes welled up watching his performance during spot editing. That last scene was particularly moving. We had predicted that Guru’s performance will be much-feted after the release of the film. The villain was going to be the scene-stealer. We had discussed several names for the role. Guru was Basil’s suggestion.

Basil had complete faith in Guru. When you think of an adversary to a superhero, you are automatically creating an image of a well-built, strong personality in your mind. But we didn’t want our villain to be like that. And Guru’s performance validated our decision. We knew he was going to get the maximum accolades for 'Minnal Murali'.

Deciding scripts
Bangalore Days was the first film we produced. Anwar Rasheed is a family favourite. My son especially thinks the world of him. When we went to meet Anwar, he told me—“I am going to do a film now. Do you want to join us?” That’s how Bangalore Days happened. We always think of how an audience will see a film and agree to projects we think the audience will love.

The journey
I came to Dubai in 1986. I have often thought of coming to Kerala to start some business. We love cinema and that’s why we are in this business. And we are very careful of doing only quality films. We all read scripts and only work with people we are comfortable with. When we took 'Minnal Murali', we knew we had a lot at stake and also knew we had to be totally invested in the project. My son opened an account at IMDB and contacted a few Hollywood action directors. And that’s how we hired Vlad.

When it comes to production, we are involved in such aspects as we want the best for our film. Once we make a film, we are ready to do anything to make it work. My father-in-law used to be involved in theatre and my brother-in-law had a production house called Partheeksha Pictures. They produced Nagarangalil Chennu Raaparkkam. From that whenever we came for holidays, we would all visit the film sets. That’s what inspired us to start a production house. My children love cinema and most of our discussions at home are about cinema. It’s not so difficult to figure out whether a story is feasible or not. The decision to produce a film is always a collective decision. Like every job, this is also risky. You need to make a film keeping an eye on the audience’s intelligence and tastes. That’s the only formula.

Take risks, that’s the only success mantra
Once we built a house in Kerala, but when we had to suffer some losses, we sold the house and returned to Dubai. But that house never left us. Years later we acquired the house. Basil is a sensitive soul, who keeps worrying all the time. That’s when I tell Basil to buck up and remind him that life is all about handling the ups and downs and remaining positive. He has shown utmost dedication to 'Minnal Murali'. In between our cameraman left us. Basil was devastated and came to me, wondering how to deal with it. I told him not to worry and take his time in finding the right person. Having gone through so many highs and lows in life, I am able to handle crises very calmly and so I am able to offer some life lessons to Basil. Without a doubt, 'Minnal Murali' is our riskiest project to date. It missed two Onam. So many hurdles came but we all stood together and dealt with it and today we are able to happily enjoy its success. We are in discussion about a few projects.

Upcoming projects
Many are in their writing stages. Announcements will be made shortly. The success of 'Minnal Murali' has made us more responsible as producers as we have a reputation to live up to. From now on, we will be extra cautious when it comes to picking our films.

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