In this column published in the first week of every month, I single out The Best and The Worst across Indian film and television in the month gone by. Consider it a report card. This December gave us a super new film as well as a superficial new series.
Minnal Murali (Netflix)
My favourite scene in Basil Joseph’s homegrown superhero film features a bunch of schoolchildren at a function marvelling at a costumed superhero beating up some policemen. In one delicious moment, a kid playing Mahatma Gandhi starts vociferously cheering on the superhero, asking him to beat the cops up, when another boy rebukes the child for breaking non-violent character. ‘Gandhi’ remembers who he is meant to play, and quietens down, suitably chastised.
Minnal Murali is streaming on Netflix.It is hard not to be taken in by this marvellous Malayalam adventure set in a tiny village with immense character, featuring a roguish and gullible hero, played by the preposterously charming Tovino Thomas. It is hard for a superhero movie today, especially an origin story, to surprise viewers who know the meal they will be served, but Joseph gives the numerous inhabitants of Kurukkanmoola distinctive flavour, while Thomas — goofy, clumsy, guileless Thomas — is unquestionably the film’s secret sauce.
His character Jaison, a tailor with US-travel dreams in his eyes, is a good-for-nothing who proudly wears “Abibas” and “Lowcoste” t-shirts without knowing they are knockoffs. At the time he’s struck by lightning (which gives him his powers) he’s drunk and wailing about a girl who doesn’t want him while wearing a Santa Claus outfit. He is, in every way, a loser. As played by Thomas, he is also so compelling — even when snivelling — that it takes nearly an hour for his superpowers to come into play but by that time, we can’t get enough of Jaison.
Lightning, however, has struck twice. At the same instant Jaison is felled, a teashop worker called Shibu is also hit by the same bolt but nobody even knows — or cares — where he happens to be, while even those who were laughing at Jaison’s antics rush him to hospital. Played evocatively by Aaranya Kandam star Guru Somasundaram, Shibu is as lovelorn and pathetic as Jaison, but as a lower-caste man who grew up cruelly mocked by villagers for his mother’s mental health issues, he finds no friendly well-wishers, nobody to point him to comic book heroes and give him enthused advice. So he forges his own path.
Minnal Murali therefore — discreetly — indicts its audience even as it entertains them. We are the ones labelling our heroes and our villains, being generous to some and leaving others wanting. The film is a joyous, self-aware and fleet-footed entertainer, which also questions the absolute nature of good vs evil the genre is founded on. Even Mahatma Gandhi would cheer for that.
My biggest problem with Decoupled is not that the writing is juvenile or that the acting is childish or that the jokes belong to the WhatsApp-Uncle genre. No, my top problem for Netflix’s latest Indian comedy is a distinct — and painful — lack of originality. The first episode, for instance, has a writer, Arya (played by R Madhavan) go up to a more famous writer (Chetan Bhagat) in a restaurant and request Bhagat to come greet him and his wife. Bhagat sportingly agrees, but when he shows up, Arya brushes him off and scolds him for interrupting their meal, leaving Chetan red-faced.
It’s a great situation, but it’s something insult comic Don Rickles once did to Frank Sinatra, a story Old Blue Eyes recounted often on the talkshow circuit. There is nothing new here.
Decoupled, the story of a writer who speaks in aphorisms, tries its hardest to be like Larry David’s superb HBO series Curb Your Enthusiasm. Yet while the Curb jokes are always on David, as my colleague Sudhish Kamath observed, Madhavan plays the obnoxious, foot-in-mouth Arya with superiority and swagger, as if he were the hero. He just doesn’t seem to know his character has egg on his face. This makes the show pretend all his patently ridiculous generalisations — about the unattractiveness of Gurgaon housemaids, for instance — are correct.
Bhagat, who sends himself up gamely and refreshingly, may be the most self-aware person on this set. Directed by Hardik Mehta and created by Manu Joseph, this is a limp series. David’s show pushes boundaries, this one points at them. Audiences who haven’t watched mature, envelope-pushing comedy shows may conceivably be amused by this less intelligent and superficial cover version, but most of us — including the American sitcoms with laugh-tracks — have moved on from ill-informed men discussing the female orgasm over a beer. Consider our enthusiasm curbed.
Raja Sen is a critic, author and screenwriter. He has written the upcoming film Chup with filmmaker R Balki.