Virus movie review: Aashiq Abu's ingeniously clinical-yet-emotional ode to Kerala's successful Nipah battle
Aashiq Abu has been at the forefront of the new parallel cinema movement that has blossomed in Mollywood in the past decade, but Virus is a whole new level of achievement.
castParvathy, Kunchacko Boban, Tovino Thomas, Rima Kallingal, Sreenath Bhasi, Revathy, Joju George, Indrajith Sukumaran, Asif Ali, Indrans, Sharafudheen, Soubin Shahir, Dileesh Pothan, Rahman, Madonna Sebastian, Sajitha Madathil, Leona Lishoy, Darshana Rajendran, Remya Nambeesan
The last time Aashiq Abu released a film, it left in its wake a beautiful pain that is yet to subside and a heartache that may never go away. One and half years after Mayaanadhi came to theatres, Abu is out with his next. Virus is a medical thriller cum medical/government/bureaucratic procedural featuring a constellation of some of Malayalam cinema's biggest stars coming together to recount the successful containment of the dreaded Nipah virus in Kerala last year.
It is a measure of the high esteem in which Abu is held in the Malayalam film industry that he was able to gather so many stars for a single project though each one gets limited screen time, no character in particular is projected as a protagonist and though the star-studded ensemble film is not common in Mollywood.
Virus firms up the director's reputation for prioritising theme over stars, by not being a Garry Marshall-style, Valentine's Day-type venture in which the casting was a gimmick and the result an unremarkable game of spot-the-famous-face. Here in Virus, Abu's deployment of these big-screen luminaries guarantees memorability for each character. It also serves to underline the points that in the giant battle against Nipah even the seemingly smallest player's actions could have meant the difference between life and death, no cog in the wheel was/is minor, and the state's quietly diligent politicians, bureaucrats, healthcare professionals, ordinary citizens and all others involved are/were superstars no less than the glitzy artistes playing fictionalised versions of them in this film.
The investment in casting then is a tribute to these real-life heroines and heroes including Nipah's victims, many of whom contracted the disease through an act of kindness.
The closest companion to Virus I can think of among the films I have watched is Steven Soderbergh's Contagion (2011) starring Kate Winslet, Gwyneth Paltrow, Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne and several other Western cinema heavyweights, and set in the midst of a worldwide epidemic. The underlying socio-political themes in Contagion were very different though. Besides, that film was fictional and dealt in hypotheticals, Virus actually happened. Just recently. In our own country. And we have failed to recognise how those of us living just a couple of state borders away from Kerala came within a whisper of being affected by what could have ended up being a nationwide tragedy.
Virus takes us through those tension-ridden days in the summer of 2018 when the deadly Nipah surfaced in Kozhikode and Malappuram districts. As the potentially fatal infection begins to spread, the state's health minister (Kerala's KK Shailaja, named CK Prameela here and played by Revathy) gathers a team of officials, medicos and volunteers to investigate its origins and stem its spread.
With clinical efficiency reflective of the methodical manner in which disease control must perforce be conducted if it is to be effective, Virus goes about its business of painstakingly chronicling their painstaking work. The wonderment of seeing so many big names in successive frames and often together wears off within minutes, as it becomes clear that there is nothing flashy about this film and that its story is supreme.
The news media has reported that Kerala earned kudos from domestic and international quarters for its handling of Nipah last year. What Virus does is inspire a sense of awe at the realisation of how much must have gone on behind the scenes and how much else could have gone wrong if any individual in the entire exercise had set one toe wrong.
In some senses it plays out like a suspense drama, although we know that the outbreak did not ultimately turn into an epidemic. The tenterhooks emanate from a question, investigated meticulously by Parvathy's character - how did the first victim in this episode get infected? - and because of the pushes and pulls between the state and Central governments in Abu's take on what transpired away from the media spotlight.
(Minor spoiler alert for this paragraph)
Virus is particularly intriguing because of what it states and implies about the Centre-state tussle. What were the sources from whom the film's writers got their information? If this account is indeed accurate or even if creative licence is at work here then, among other things, Virus is a chilling reminder of the pandemic of prejudice spreading across today's world, as lethal perhaps as any known microbe.
(Spoiler alert ends)
With its multi-strand, non-linear narrative style, hyperlinking back and forth from one thread to another then back to an earlier one, the director — aided by Muhsin Parari, Sharfu and Suhas' say-it-like-it-is, no-frills-attached writing and Saiju Sreedharan's masterful editing — has the film trotting along at an unrelenting yet simultaneously miraculously unrushed pace.
Abu does not resort to artificial highlights to stress the urgency of the job at hand but does not in any way underplay it either. It is what it is - the viewer is not so stupid as to need a loud background score, drumrolls and dramatic camera movements to recognise an emergency. Sushin Shyam's minimal music, for one, is used sparingly and, as a consequence, to striking effect. Rajeev Ravi's cinematography supplemented by Shyju Khalid captures in no-nonsense documentary style the goings-on in Virus. With such extraordinary collaborators at hand, Abu manages to infuse the film with a sedateness that mirrors the calm Prameela/Shailaja and her associates seek to instil in the fearful populace.
A word here about the subtitling by Rajeev Ramachandran. Most subtitled Indian films treat subs merely as translations for the benefit of those who do not know the language in which the film has been made. Virus heads down a path that some outside India have already taken, by caring about the hearing impaired too. There is little awareness in India about this, which is why you often see even well-meaning people grumbling about how subs are distracting (for instance, "why does an English film need English subtitles?") - I confess I had not given this matter much thought until one of my students lost her hearing a few years back and I was compelled to think in this direction. The couple of spelling mistakes in Virus' subs and repeated use of the ungrammatical "tensed" (it should be "I am tense", please) feel minor in comparison with its consideration towards a largely neglected community. So if you find yourself getting irritated because Virus' subtitles describe ambient sounds, the tone of the background music and so on in addition to explaining dialogues, do keep this in mind.
Virus' dissection of Kerala's response to Nipah in 2018 offers an ocean of insights into the interconnectedness of our species with the entire animal kingdom, how crisis can bring out the best and worst in human beings, how trigger-happy governments could turn even a health issue into a communal conflagration, how humankind is forever teetering on the edge of inhumanity and held back by the best among us, and much more. What would have made it complete would have been an examination of human interference with nature that is triggering calamities earlier rare or unheard of.
The film is determined not to villainise scared citizens, but it does not pedestalise anyone either. Parvathy's Dr Annu, for instance, is admirable for her beaver-like diligence but in a scene in which she interrogates a man who may be dying, we see her dedication to her job overriding - perhaps unintentionally - the need for extreme gentleness in such circumstances.
In CK Prameela and Kozhikode Collector Paul Abraham (Tovino Thomas) we see a lesson in how great leadership is about constantly putting out small fires. And through the Manipal Institute of Virology's Dr Suresh Rajan (Kunchacko Boban) we are forced to also see that preparing yourself for the worst while hoping for the best does not necessarily mean you are a bad person or even a cynic, it could be that you are simply realistic.
Wittingly or unwittingly, especially while linking the stories of the policeman Prakash (Dileesh Pothan) and the no-hoper Unnikrishnan (Soubin Shahir), Virus also throws light on what Hindi bhaashis call a chalta-hai (casual) attitude in Indian society and systems that begs for disasters to happen.
Aashiq Abu has been at the forefront of the new parallel cinema movement that has blossomed in Mollywood in the past decade, but Virus — which he has co-produced with Rima Kallingal — is a whole new level of achievement. In an India of thin skins and combustible sensitivities, it is also courageous in the way it risks something that most of this country's quality filmmakers avoid: it recounts recent history. This is a minutely observant, unobtrusively educative and moving ode to unsung stars, the triumph of the team and the strength of the human spirit.
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