Meet the Dubai resident who produced Malayalam hit Minnal Murali

Like most Malayalis, this superhero movie too has a Gulf connection.

By Anu Prabhakar

Published: Mon 24 Jan 2022, 4:12 PM

At the Middle East release of the 2018 Malayalam movie Padayottam, the writer of the film Arun Anirudhan caught up with the producer Sophia Paul in Dubai and shared a rather tantalizing, one-line description of his next movie. “He said the main character is a tailor who is struck by lightning and gets (superhero) powers, and his name is Minnal Murali,” recalls Paul via Zoom from Kollam, Kerala. “When we heard that one line itself, we confirmed we will do it.” Later, the movie was discussed and finalized in Dubai as well – director Basil Joseph and writers Anirudhan and Justin Mathew flew down to the emirate to narrate the final script to Paul, her husband, brother and two sons. “I was happy with the way Basil took it and made it a local superhero … we didn’t want someone like a Hollywood superhero in a Malayalam movie,” she explains.

Sophia Paul
Sophia Paul

Minnal Murali turned out to be the superhero movie that the Indian audience deserved. Actor Tovino Thomas played the eponymous superhero clad in a lungi, which resolutely defied gravity as he and his nemesis Shibu (played by Guru Somasundaram) flew, sprinted, twisted and somersaulted in high octane action scenes which, for once, didn’t look tacky. It was released on Netflix last month to rave reviews and featured on the streaming platform’s ‘Global Top 10 (Non-English)’ list.

But this is hardly Paul’s first tryst with success. She co-produced the Malayalam film Bangalore Days which was directed by Anjali Menon, with popular director and producer Anwar Rasheed. The movie was critically lauded and a superhit, and remade in Tamil.

From Kollam to the UAE and moviedom

Paul credits her father for introducing her to the magical world of movies.

Raised in Kollam, she fondly remembers her father, a businessman, as a ‘broad-minded’ person who liked to treat his kids by taking them to the neighbourhood theatre. “We all loved movies,” she says. “When I was in boarding school, my father used to come on the weekends and take me out for masala dosa, ghee dosa or vada and a movie.” At 19, she married into a family that had a film background – her father-in-law owned two theatres. A month later, in 1986, she joined her husband in Abu Dhabi. “Other than marriage, I wanted to travel abroad and see Abu Dhabi,” she laughs. As a young homemaker, she spent her time cooking and watching Hindi movies. “We also had many other options like Tamil movies thanks to video cassettes,” she adds.

Paul and her husband eventually ran businesses of their own - a building maintenance and manpower supply company and Tamarind Terrace restaurant in Karama. “My husband’s brother had entered the field of film production and they did the distribution for movies like Thalapati and Roja in Kerala and produced many good movies,” she continues. Later her sons, who shared her love for movies, suggested that they too start a production house. “Our business in Dubai was doing well and we wanted to do something which we loved. So in 2013, we planned to start a production house. But first, we had to have a good project.” Her elder son – who was married by then – was a fan of Anwar Rasheed who had directed the National Award winning movie Ustad Hotel among other hit films, and suggested that they work with him. “We met him and he said that he was planning to produce a movie (which would end up being Bangalore Days) and that we could join him if we liked as he was searching for a co-producer … That was our first step into the film industry.” Their production house, Weekend Blockbusters, has produced five movies so far.

In an interview, Paul once described herself as an “interfering producer”. “Even if the director's side fixes somebody (for a job) we will check if that person is okay or if we need a replacement,” she elaborates. “We want to make the movie better and we will support it well from the production's side but we would like to avoid unnecessary things. We interfere in every section, like the art and costume sections, because everything is based on money.”

“We work with people we are comfortable with,” she continues. “Some of them don’t like it when we give our suggestions – they think the producer is a financier. Even after the project is over, some people say, ‘Oh, even another production house could have done this project’. I don't keep such people in my next project. At the end, we are taking a major risk, but some people don’t think about that.”

Destiny’s child

Paul’s sons are deeply involved in production right from listening to scripts and had, in fact, insisted that they produce Minnal Murali – her younger son even roped in Hollywood action director Vlad Rimburg for the movie.

But making the movie during a raging pandemic was a “huge challenge” as COVID-19 and lockdowns delayed the shooting. And in May 2020, news articles reported that members of right-wing groups vandalized the movie set of a church. “The Kerala government was supportive and immediately took action, but we were shocked,” says Sophia. “We lost a huge amount - 145 carpenters from Chennai came and were working there.” The set had been erected for the climax scene, which was eventually shot in Shettihalli in Hassan district, Karnataka over 20 days in March 2021 just as the second wave of the pandemic began rising again. “Those 20 days were very stressful. But now when we look back, we are happy,” she says.

It helps that Paul is a firm believer in destiny and staying positive. In an interview with The Hindu, she spoke about how they once had to sell their house in Kollam – which they could eventually rebuy. “So many incidents have happened in my life,” she says. “Even in our business, my husband and I have taken things (in our stride) and moved forward. If there is an up, there is a down and we have to face it."

Merchandise like Minnal Murali T-shirts is already out which hints at bigger plans, but Sophia remains tight lipped although she confirms that they are planning a sequel. “There is time for an official announcement but there is definitely potential for 2, 3 or whatever. We will make the universe bigger,” she smiles.

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