What makes a film engaging? This is quite a broad question, which can be answered from multiple angles (do comment your thoughts on the same below). However, I watched two films this week – Maanadu (Tamil) on SonyLiv and Minnal Murali (Malayalam) on Netflix – and there was something strikingly similar about these two films that I really wanted to talk about.
First things first: both are highly entertaining films that deserve your holiday attention. Maanadu is a time-loop thriller directed by Venkat Prabhu and starring Silambarasan. And Minnal Murali needs no introduction – arguably the most anticipated film of the year that piqued the interest of viewers inch by inch, teaser by teaser, song by song, comic by comic…
Anyway, let’s get straight to the point: the commonality between these two films. People who have watched these films would agree that the second half was a notch higher than the first half. This was because, in both the scenarios, the screenplay built on the momentum created in the first half and deftly picked up pace in the second half. The core element in both screenplays was the play between the protagonist and the antagonist.
In Maanadu, we see a hero getting stuck in a time loop right off the bat, and the first half is all about him (and us) getting acquainted with the time loop format, and the hero discovering his purpose. The villain (played by SJ Suryah) is introduced early on, but we do not think of him as a menace then. After all, our hero has the insane ability to rewind time and set things right again. What can possibly stop him, you ask? It is at this juncture, that Venkat Prabhu pulls out his most coveted card: the interval block which reveals that the antagonist is also caught in the same time loop every time the hero dies! The antagonist, once he learns of this, begins to screw with the hero, using his own ‘brahmastram’ against him, throwing hurdles at him every step of the way. *Grabs popcorn*
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In Minnal Murali, though, the villain is on equal footing with the hero right from the start (ie, the minnal being the connecting aspect). The hero’s journey runs almost in parallel to the villain’s journey, and the story beats keep us glued to the screen, making us wonder what series of events will culminate in their imminent clash. Using a couple of intertwined characters, Basil Joseph brings about a circumstance where the villain learns to take advantage of Minnal Murali’s anonymity – and this is where the film takes off into smart-combat mode between the superhero and the supervillain.
As the plots progressed, we also got a peek into their minds – a bit of their backstories, their ideologies, their rationales for doing the things they do and so on. When these characters’ ideologies are well depicted, it becomes easier for the audiences to understand their actions (maybe not empathise with them, but at least understand them).
We often hear directors say, “A good film needs a good villain”. And after watching Maanadu and Minnal Murali, I cannot emphasise this point more, especially from a commercial cinema point of view. Come to think of it, when was the last time you felt dreadfully scared of a villain in Malayalam cinema? Take even the most celebrated villain of recent times, Bobby (Vivek Oberoi) in Lucifer – the film was designed to have a mass, peverful ending with Stephen Nedumbally triumphing over evil. You know it, I know it…there was no suspense. It was all about that mass moment. Sure, such spectacle films also deserve a space in commercial cinema – films where the emphasis is not on the who but on the how. But I have felt that most films that take this route, fail miserably to provide wholesome entertainment and in turn, become snooze-fests.
However, when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object, fireworks are almost bound to erupt on screen. A powerful villain would mean a confusing menace to the hero. In both the aforementioned films, we see the hero struggle to understand what is going on around him – courtesy of the villains’ shrewd moves – and eventually hunting down the person and trying to take him down, again only to find that he has pretty much the same powers as himself. This kind of space provides such great scope for innovations in the screenplay, and it’s these small innovations that really give films an original flavour.
I really hope that these films really push the commercial cinema envelope and inspire more filmmakers to explore a terrain where the protagonist on-screen is as clueless as viewers off-screen, of how to annihilate the evil that besets them. The future is bright!