Virus (2019)

Based on a true story, writers Muhsin Parari, Sharfu and Suhas have taken the subject of the 2018 Nipah outbreak in Kerala and delivered a tense and suspenseful drama that is all the more powerful for its basis in fact. Although at times the effort to appear like a Hollywood disaster movie makes some of the screenplay seem a tad forced, for the most part this is a solid delivery of a fascinating story. The attempts to control the outbreak and the forensic analysis to discover the source of the virus are cleverly written to demonstrate the dedication and compassion of all involved, and it’s the realism and depth of detail that make this such an engrossing watch. Director Aashiq Abu has an all-star cast, but what really shines through is the story and ultimately the response of the hospital and government staff at the time who did such an amazing job of containing the infection and preventing mass exposure.

As someone who works in a hospital in Australia, the opening scenes in the casualty department of the hospital in Kozhikode appear completely shambolic with doctors and nurses struggling just to get near a patient let alone treat their problems.  But over the years I’ve worked in a number of hospitals in India myself and I recognise that the apparent chaos is actually all under control despite appearances to the contrary, and that somehow the doctors and nurses manage to see every single patient over the course of the day. In Kozhikode, as junior doctor Abid Rahman (Sreenath Bhasi) is starting his shift, the patients seem the usual collection of injuries, illnesses and infection cases, but then there is a young man admitted suffering seizures, hallucinations and who is rapidly getting worse. One of the nurses, Akhila (Rima Kallingal) tries to take care of the patient, Zachariah (Zakariya Mohammed) but her efforts and those of the medical team are in vain, and just as Zachariah’s condition deteriorates further, more patients start to appear with similar symptoms.

It takes some time for the pieces to start to come together. The cases are spread across two districts so the similarities between patients’ symptoms are not immediately recognised, but when Akhila herself becomes ill the situation suddenly escalates to a full-blown emergency with the main objective being to control the spread of the disease. The story from here unfolds gradually, following the medical staff as they treat patients and Kozhikode Distric Collector Paul Abraham (Tovino Thomas) and Health Minister Prameela (Revathi) as they start the search for the source. But we also see the hospital orderlies and cleaners who are willing to risk their lives to try and help stop the spread of the disease, and the impact these decisions have on their families too. Dr Suresh Rajan (Kunchacko Boban) confirms that the patients have contracted Nipah, which has no treatment, no vaccination and a 75% fatality rate, with the only option being containment and quarantine. For those who already have the disease there is little hope. Paul starts the process of tracking down the “Index patient’, aided by Dr Annu (Parvathy) and as each patient is admitted there are flashbacks to possible contamination moments which highlight the relentless spread of the disease through close encounters with possible carriers.

Nothing is omitted – the struggles to calm the fears of medical students and hospital staff are here as well as descriptions of the difficulties of disposing of the bodies of the deceased. These are still infectious and need to be incinerated safely which causes further distress to grieving families who aren’t even allowed the dignity of a funeral for their loved ones. There is a conspiracy theory thrown around that this could be a form of terrorist attack by germ warfare, but mostly the tension comes from a combination of the race to find the cause, and the plight of the patients and the doctors trying desperately to save them.

The film works so well because it is incredibly realistic and down to earth. The reactions are all natural and even the attempts to increase tension with the conspiracy theory and sensational TV interviews could all be plausibly grounded in fact. Every single character is beautifully drawn with each actor perfectly cast for their role, so that Virus often seems more like a documentary than a film. Taking each character and giving them plausible background is inspired – like hospital porter Babu (Joju George), initially seen negotiating for wages which have not been paid and whose wife and children are stigmatised while he is away. These details, even down to a broken strap on his backpack give authenticity to the story and draw the audience deeper into what is happening onscreen. There are so many excellent but fleeting performances. Soubin Shahir is good as a patient whose infection initially baffles the doctors as he seems to have had no contact with any of the confirmed cases, while Madonna Sebastian appears even more briefly as a junior doctor who contracts the virus. Poornima Indrajith, Asif Ali, and Sharafudheen all appear in critical roles while Savithri Sreedharan, who was so good in Sudani from Nigeria is brilliant in her few short scenes as the mother of the index patient. Zakariya Mohammed brings so much humanity to his role as the first identified case of the virus with an incredibly poignant closing scene delivering the perfect finale to a film that really is all about compassion and caring.

This is a brilliant depiction of real-life events and I found it compelling but chilling to realise that this outbreak actually happened. The film unfolds as if watching the events in real time and I was awed by the immediacy of the hospital and government response and impressed by the success of their quarantine. Aashiq Abu has done an amazing job with bringing this story to life onscreen and while Virus may be a factual telling of the story, it’s the characters that are most memorable and have the biggest impact. Highly recommended.

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Salt N Pepper

Salt N Pepper poster

I liked Aashiq Abu’s Salt N Pepper for lots of reasons, many being things the film isn’t. It is a romance but it’s not the usual gorgeous young things plunging into insta-love. People have their emotional baggage but no one is so traumatised by rejection or ill fortune that they have to become vengeful killing machines. People cook, eat, and share what is important in their lives. Friends do the wrong thing sometimes, but might also do the exactly right thing and either way, life goes on.

One day Kalidasan (Lal) receives a phone call from Maya (Shweta Menon), who mistakenly thinks she has called a restaurant to order a particular dosa. He cuts the call and when she rings back to chase up her order, he tells her off. Once the rancour settles and the misunderstanding is cleared, Maya and Kalidasan speak often. They are both a little older, have their own lives and careers.  While they each want love and companionship, they lack confidence in their ability to attract and keep a partner.

 

Salt-n-Pepper-it begins

Both are foodies, and their conversations develop around cooking and local delicacies. Manu (Asif Ali) comes to stay with his uncle Kalidasan. Manu is enthusiastic, likeable and not one to overthink the consequences. Maya’s closest friend is the confident glamour girl Meenakshi (Mythili). When Kalidasan and Maya decide it is time to meet and see if their burgeoning relationship might take off, they both make the same decision, born out of their insecurities. They send stand-ins. Manu and Meenakshi meet, pretending to be Maya and Kalidasan and their chemistry is evident. Manu pursues “Maya” for himself and Meenakshi is keen on him too. So when Maya and Kalidasan each decide to stop the pretence and meet for real, what will happen?

Lal’s performance brings the solitary Kalidasan to life. He is a man who has grown accustomed to his circumstances even though he sometimes wishes there was a bit more to it. Usually a sensible and organised man, his occasional drunken antics range from appealingly silly dances to temper tantrums. Lal puts it all together to add depth and shade to the character, and has bit of teddybear charm behind the growly voice. Kalidasan has some self-awareness and is not afraid to offer a heartfelt apology or reflect on his own behaviour so he remained sympathetic despite, or sometimes because of, his almost adolescent outbursts.  Despite his reserve, Kalidasan has a handful of good friends and he warms to Manu immediately, making him a welcome addition to the household. He seems like a nice, slightly quirky, guy.

Shweta Menon is perfect as Maya, a dubbing artist. Maya cooks partly to connect with her memories of her mother. She connects with Kalidasan when he recounts the story of a cake made to celebrate a soldier’s return to his wife, and they make their own versions. Shweta Menon gives us a heroine who is a woman not a giggling stick insect in minimal clothing. She is articulate, attractive but not glam, and wants love not transient lust. Like Kalidasan she has a few close friends. They sit on the roof terrace and get drunk, telling stories and making plans. Maya usually hides her feelings but sometimes the façade cracks and she is a sensitive, hopeful girl that wants a nice guy to love her as she is. Maya is an independent lady and she navigates the various challenges at her workplace and home every day. She knows she has to do things for herself, even when it seems difficult.

Asif Ali and Mythili are both good in their roles and I liked Manu and Meenakshi despite their occasional selfishness and dimwitted behaviour. I wasn’t as convinced by their relationship developing as I was by Maya and Kalidasan but there was enough substance there to make it seem likely. Maybe my personal preference for not pretending to be someone else and dislike of lying and sneaking around is tinting my view. Manu is a manchild, and Asif Ali had the right blend of innocent enthusiasm and delusions of hotness. I have to say he seems to kiss with the finesse of a St Bernard pup which was a worry. Mythili played up the glam and Meenakshi came across as that girl who had always been pretty and popular and had total confidence. This pair were featured in a romantic duet that not only put them in bed, but also in matching sarees. Or maybe his ‘n’ hers togas.

One of my favourite scenes is Kalidasan going to meet a prospective bride and returning single but with their excellent cook, Babu. Baburaj plays another in that long line of filmi stalwarts, the cook/confidant/general factotum. Babus’ observations give an insight into Kalidasan and while their relationship is often tested by Kalidasan’s demands, the mutual respect and affection shines through. I enjoyed seeing Kalpana as Maya’s landlady Mary. She is one of my favourite filmi aunties and while her role is small, she is expressive and fun to watch. I liked the running jokes that Maya’s moods were a result of the project she had been dubbing for. Apparently family soaps make you child-intolerant. Vijayraghavan plays Kalidasan’s colleague and friend, and doles out some sensible observations at the right time. Everyone has a backstory and enough detail to make them plausible.

There are some refreshingly low key moments. When a director (Dileesh Pothan ) propositions Maya, she makes it clear he is dreaming. He is not a creepy rapey villain, but a guy who likes lairy shirts, fancied a shag, and thought he saw an opportunity. (The subtitles said ‘togetherness’ but my ears heard ‘sex’. I wonder why.) If this was a typical mass film, he would have spent the next hour or so plotting Maya’s downfall, but as it happens he chose a completely different approach.

The film is set in Trivandrum and looks to have been filmed on location. City life permeates the action as Maya and Kalidasan move between the hectic streets and their residences, even unwittingly crossing paths. Kalidasan’s house is gorgeous but fusty, full of family mementoes and old fashioned furniture. His car is a character in her own right (and even gets a credit). Maya has crisp modern textiles and a light airy room, a space she has made for herself. It’s easy to believe in these people and their lives.

I largely enjoyed the humour and the relaxed interplay between characters.  However the whole Mooppan subplot is completely unnecessary and went nowhere. The Joan’s Rainbow cake sequence is one of the few false notes in the film, largely due to the endless simpering by yet another awful European extra. I did like the different cake construction and decorating style that Kalidasan and Maya chose. (If I was judging, Maya’s cake would be the winner.) Ahmed Sidique’s character was annoying and pointless. Considering the film runs under 2 hours, Abu spent too long on these tangents.

There are only a few songs, and they range from the appetising Chembavu which lists food after food, through a few inoffensive ballads (all by Bijibal), to the indescribably naff closing song by Avial. It seems Keralan “alternative rock” is not my thing – although I enjoyed the video for the segments with the actors playing starry versions of themselves.

Director Aashiq Abu has created a film romance that is smart without being too clever, has warmth without excessive histrionics and is populated by likeable people who possess (varying degrees of) common sense. 4 stars!