While we were still laughing our heads off to the 2017 Comic Con video of a mystified Tom Holland watching a desi Spiderman singing and dancing in a sugarcane field without realising that making a mockery out of ourselves to an international audience hardly serves any other purpose than solidifying the myth of a regressive India, Netflix dropped a movie that made us do a double take. Minnal Murali is nothing like what we love to loathe about Indian superhero movies. To begin with, unlike a Krrish or A Flying Jatt, Minnal Murali is good cinema powered not just by CGI, but deft writing and stellar performances. 

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Playing the indigenous superhero is Tovino Thomas, one of the most interesting contemporary actors in Malayalam cinema. The shapeshifter, who in the first half of 2021 had wowed the pan-India OTT audience with his ultra-violent and toxic masculinity-steeped turn in Rohith VS’s revenge-drama Kala (Amazon Prime Video), stuns and wins them over with this superhero act. 

It is 1995. A wide-eyed kid is watching a film shoot, standing close to his father. The six-year-old is already smitten by the fantastical world of cinema. But today, he is getting to see what goes behind creating that world. To him it is nothing less than pure magic. “My parents are huge fans of cinema. My dad had invested in a video player, and would rent video cassettes almost every Friday, and the entire family would not only watch but re-watch those multiple times before returning them on Monday. Then there would be a Hindi movie every Friday and Saturday night on Doordarshan, and on Sunday evening, we would watch Malayalam movies on TV. Movies had become an integral part of my life very early on. Also, there used to be a lot of film shoots happening nearby, and my dad would take us all to see what goes on behind the camera,” he recalls.

 “I remember my first time at such a shoot,” he continues, “The movie was Mazhavilkoodaram, and it had Malayalam superstar Rahman in it. We were part of a huge crowd that had gathered to watch the shoot. I remember waiting for hours. I was fascinated to realise that what we were seeing at the shooting spot is so different from what we will eventually watch on screen. It was magical,” reminisces Tovino. 

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Today, at 32, the actor retains within himself the soul of that wide-eyed kid consumed by the magic of cinema. In Minnal Murali, the film that has propelled him to national fame, Tovino plays Jason, a village tailor turned superhero. As Jason, Tovino is earnest, goofy, charming, and a curious mix of vulnerability and vim. But like Jason, Tovino was very much a reluctant superhero.  “When Basil (Joseph, director of Minnal Murali and also of Tovino’s superhit 2012 sports drama Godha) had first narrated the script, the character of the villain was not fully fleshed out — Shibu (played by Guru Somasundaram) had a small arc and it was entirely Jason’s story. But when I read the final script, I absolutely loved what he had done to the character of Shibu, and wanted to play him instead. But Basil convinced me by saying that while he can find an actor to play the author-backed role of Shibu, it is difficult to get an actor to play Jason as it required humour, emotions, as well as the physicality to pull it off. According to Basil, I was just right for the part,” he explains, before admitting that the temptation of it becoming a franchise might have also influenced his decision.

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Although it is his superhero gig that has landed him a place on the pan-India list of breakthrough performances of 2021, the actor, who completes 10 years in Malayalam cinema this year, is one of the prominent actors of the new-gen cinema in Kerala. Tovino made his debut in Prabhuvinte Makkal in 2012 after quitting a lucrative job as a software engineer. The actor, who had no godfather in the industry, has risen through the ranks by sheer hard work, topped with a dash of luck. While he made a deep impact with his turn as a scheming politician in the Dulquer Salmaan-starrer ABCD (2013), he slowly established himself as a bankable lead actor with movies like Guppy, Godha, Mayaanadhi, Maradona and Theevandi. However, he has continued to take up and impress with his smaller or non-lead roles as well. 

It is the love for cinema and not the lure of stardom that fuels his journey. “I believe in doing interesting characters, it doesn’t matter whether he is an antagonist or a protagonist or neither. As an actor, it should give me the scope to perform. Stardom never tempted me. For me, the worst compliment is that ‘You look good in the movie’. I don’t want to be the person who looks very good in the movie, I want to be the person who acts very well in the movie.”

Last year, apart from being the cutesy superhero, he played a narcissistic macho anti-hero in Kala, sharing the lead credits with Sumesh Moor. Tovino also grabbed eyeballs as part of the ensemble cast of Kaanekkaane, helmed by his Uyare director Manu Ashokan, and writers Bobby-Sanjay. Then there was his surprise cameo in the Dulquer Salmaan-starrer blockbuster, Kurup.  

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“I always wanted to be an actor. I started off with minuscule roles. I remember in my first film, I was standing behind another character artist, and I was struggling to show my face. I did bit roles, supporting roles, comic roles, villain roles, and eventually, lead roles. But even when I started getting the lead roles, I didn’t stop doing the other stuff. I made that decision to ensure that the actor in me is never bored,” says the actor, who is strongly against the idea of creating an onscreen persona for himself and puts in a conscious effort to avoid getting stuck in a particular image. 

But the actor has no Bollywood dreams. “There are some great actors and directors working in Bollywood today and there are beautiful movies happening there as well. Every industry has commercial and arthouse cinema, but with the new wave in cinema, the two are now merging, and we are having commercially viable movies that can be screened at film festivals. I am essentially a Malayalam actor, and there is a lot of interesting work happening in my industry. I will take up a Bollywood movie or a movie in any other industry, only if it demands an actor like me; if the character interests me.”

And Tovino is right. The charm of Bollywood is waning, and 2021 was not a particularly good year for the industry. But Malayalam cinema, with movies like Minnal Murali, Kala, Drishyam 2, Malik, Joji, The Great Indian Kitchen, not only stood tall, it often even dwarfed its Bollywood counterpart with the sheer brilliance of its content and superlative acting.

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“We do back-to-back movies in Kerala. It is tough. But ours is a relatively small industry, and we have to make movies at a very low budget. So, we work extra hard. For the climax of Kala, we shot for 36 hours at a stretch without sleep, with a lot of espressos and chapati rolls. The chapati rolls are part of our survival kit as on most days, we don’t get time to sit and have our lunch or dinner,” he laughs.

“Also, the financial constraints have made us focus more on the content, and over the years, it has become the backbone of our cinema. Today, our content is so strong that we can compete with world cinema, even Hollywood, and do so with almost a 100 times smaller budget. Even Minnal Murali is essentially an emotional drama, and the reliance on CGi is minimal as compared to other superhero movies,” Tovino points out, adding that having an audience exposed to world cinema has set the bar high for the Malayalam industry. 

However, it is in the last two years that Malayalam cinema has become this big across India. With almost all movies now releasing on OTT platforms and non-Hindi movies bridging the language barrier with crisp subtitles, the great divide between Hindi and non-Hindi cinema is slowly diminishing. 

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“A lot of non-Malayalis are now watching our movies. We are getting more exposure, the industry is becoming bigger, and the market is expanding. It is in a very happy space right now,” points out Tovino, who is riding high on the back-to-back successes of his movies. “2021 was a very important year in my career and I am hoping 2022 will be better as I have a rather interesting and diverse slate of films lined up,” he concludes. Amen to that.