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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Traffic (2011)

Traffic

When it first released in 2011, Rajesh Pillai’s Traffic was hailed as a new genre in Malayalam cinema and one of the first so-called ‘New Generation’ films. Bobby and Sanjay’s story doesn’t have a traditional heroic-centric plot, but instead uses a collection of everyday characters and a combination of a non-linear first half with a more traditional road movie in the second to come up with a novel action/drama. Despite the more Western style, this is still a very Indian film with references to wide-spread corruption, the power of celebrity and the chaotic nature of the Indian road system at the heart of the story. Interestingly, the film is based on real-life events in Chennai which are referenced in the film, proving that real life is often more dramatic than fiction.

Traffic begins with a car crash, then goes back a few weeks to introduce the main characters and the events that lead to their presence at a particular crossroads at 8.50am on 16th September. First there is Siddharth Shankar (Rahman), a movie star who has little time for his family, wife Shruti (Lena) and daughter Priya (Namitha Pramod). Siddharth has people who do things for him and he expects his celebrity status to smooth his way through life which, for the most part, it does. At one point Siddharth is interviewed while his daughter and wife watch, rolling their eyes at his generic answers which suggest he is a devoted family man. But when Priya gives the interviewer questions to ask about herself, Siddharth obviously hasn’t a clue, stopping the shooting and asking Priya for the answer before repeating it on camera. It’s an excellent example of the disconnect between the actor and his family, and illustrates his complete unawareness of the chasm he has allowed to develop between them. It’s not so much arrogance as a simple belief that he is the most important person in any situation, so when later, Siddharth is attempting to throw his weight around and suddenly realises that here is a situation where all his star-power is useless, it’s a major shock to his ego. Particularly when combined with a few home-truths from his wife in a rousing dialogue where she finally points out his shortcomings and failures as a father. Shruti has some of the best dialogues in the film and Lena does an excellent job in portraying her emotional upheavals as the story unfolds.

Secondly there is Reehan (Vineeth Sreenivasan), who has just scored the job of a journalist at TV station Indiavision and is scheduled to interview Siddharth on the day of the accident. Reehan has some issues with his doctor father (Saikumar) but seems to be finally finding his place in the world with his new job. He has a girlfriend Aditi (Sandhya) who is looking for her second chance at happiness with Reehan. The two seem very much in love although her recently divorced status and different religion mean that Reehan hasn’t told his parents about their relationship. All in all, they are a regular family and their reactions when disaster strikes seem completely normal, even down to Reehan’s mother obsessively replaying the last video she took of her son before his big interview. That interview was rescheduled by Siddharth and to make it in time Reehan asks his friend Rajiv (Asif Ali) to take him in to the studio on the back of his bike. As a result, they both reach the intersection in time for the accident.

Dr Abel (Kunchacko Boban) is a cardiac surgeon driving to pick up a new car for his wife Shwetha’s (Remya Nambeesan) birthday. Abel seems happy and contented with his life, and it seems coincidence that his route to the car show room takes him along the road to the intersection where the accident occurs. It’s not until later in the film that events in the lead-up to the accident become significant and explain his subsequent actions as he escorts a donor heart from Kochi to Palakkad.

Finally, there is traffic policeman Sudevan (Sreenivasan) who is about to restart work after a suspension for taking a bribe. Ironically, he himself has to pay off an official to get his job back and Sudevan is exquisitely aware of the irony of his position. He initially took the bribe to pay for his daughter’s education, but is upset and disappointed that she has little time for her father, preferring to spend time with her friends. It’s a fairly typical teenage situation, but for Sudevan who is smarting under his suspension, her lack of empathy with his sacrifice cuts deep. Sudevan too is on the road at the time of the accident with his wife (Reena Basheer) on his bike, but Sudevan’s involvement comes later when he gets the chance to redeem his reputation if he can pull off the drive of his life.

After the accident one of the casualties is left in a coma and not expected to survive. There is an ethical dilemma to overcome as the victim’s heart may be transplanted and used to save a life, but only if the family agrees. Naturally, there is plenty of drama as the family want to wait until the very last minute, even though there is no hope for recovery. On the other hand, the doctors know that time is critical and they need an answer as soon as possible if they are to have any chance to donate the victim’s heart.

Then there is the issue of getting the heart from Kochi to Palakkad, a distance of 180km with only 2 hours to make the journey over congested roads. Police Commissioner Ajmal Nazar (Anoop Menon) has to weigh up the risks to his men as they attempt to reach the hospital in time with the benefit of saving a life and racking up some good PR for his department. In the end, it’s head surgeon Dr Simon D’Souza (Jose Prakash) who manages to convince the Commissioner that he has the choice to make history if he can accomplish the journey. Obviously, a convincing argument as Ajmal uses it on his men too, with the result that Sudevan steps up to drive the heart and Dr Abel to the hospital in Palakkad.

From here on it would seem to be smooth sailing, bar some excitement as the car tries to traverse roads that weren’t built for speed or easy overtaking. But there are more unresolved issues that mean the car goes AWOL en route and the final outcome remains in doubt almost up to the final frame. Rajesh Pillai succeeds in keeping the tension mounting with the search for the missing vehicle and continues to build suspense even after the car is found, as the delay means that they may not reach the hospital in time.

The hyperlink approach of the first half reveals snippets of each character, establishing some sense of their personality and giving an explanation of why they are on the road at the time of the accident. Jumping from one character to another also sets up the foundation for various links between the characters that are revealed as the story progresses. Despite the piecemeal approach, the relationships are all well-defined and the very normalness of the characters ensures they are relatable and generally understandable in their subsequent actions. In fact, the only part of the story that seems overly contrived is the reason for Sudevan and his vehicle to drop out of contact but that is balanced by the use of Siddharth’s star status to get his fans to help with clearing the roads – a nice touch that seems entirely plausible and works well as a result.

The road trip follows a more linear storyline with a relatively predictable path, although Rajesh Pillai does generate thrills by adding crowded streets and poor road conditions to the mix. There are some flashback sequences that break up the journey too and keep the story from dragging. However, the end is quite abrupt and sadly not all the stories get a conclusion, notably the fate of the young woman who caused the crash in the first place and the outcome for Dr Abel and his wife. However, the resolution for Siddharth and Sudevan is nicely done and the idea of redemption through being given a second chance is explored well. I also don’t think it’s necessary that all the stories are brought to a final conclusion – this is more of a brief snapshot into the lives of a group of strangers and as such not everything needs have a clear-cut ending.

The attention to detail in the parallel stories at the start ensures the film gets off to a good start and the good mix of believable drama, well-portrayed emotion and plausible action keeps it engaging throughout. It’s a major plus that so many of the women are strong characters- Shruti, Aditi (and yay that her divorced status isn’t a major issue, just part of her backstory) and Fathima Babu as Reehan’s mother. The rest of the cast are all excellent in their roles and the background music from Mejo Joseph and Samson Kottoor suits the screenplay well. There are only a few songs and while they aren’t terribly memorable themselves, they are used well in the narrative giving more insight into some of the relationships and characters. Subsequent films have further developed the New Generation genre but Traffic still has plenty to recommend it and well deserves its reputation as a trend-setter. 3 ½ stars.

Ozhimuri

ozhimuri-movie-poster

In some ways Ozhimuri was a hard film to place. Many of the plot summaries around made it sound like a fairly dry film about legal and social change in Kerala with the cessation of matrilineal inheritance. The posters tend to position it as a cute romance, which is not the focus, or push a love = violence angle which is unpalatable and also not really the point. Ozhimuri is not a heavy message film, nor is it a simple “boy with angry dad meets girl”. It’s a beautifully engaging story of three generations of family, the tensions and unexpected similarities between family members.

Director Madhupal uses a concise montage to set the scenes with images of females, human and divine, sitting at the feet of males, then older images that show the reverse. The titles use scenes at a big religious festival (My goodness! Those children must be terrified!), and meandering through beautiful countryside to embed the story in rural and traditional culture.

Meenakshi (Mallika) files for separation, citing harassment. Despite being described as a “dead dog” at the age of 55, she wants her independence. But she wants some property of means of support, having been made to sign hers over to her husband. Thanu (Lal) doesn’t seem to want his wife but will not relinquish any property. The legal argument then hinges on whether she is entitled to get alimony. His young female lawyer Balamani (Bhavana), who you might expect to support a woman seeking independence, joins the chorus of naysayers telling Sharath (Asif Ali) to persuade his parents to stay together. He tries to persuade Balamani of his father’s cruelty, and as they spend time together their own relationship deepens. Kali Pillai (Shweta Menon), is a strong influence on all aspects of Thanu’s life, and not in the usual doting ma and son way. Described as a queen, with the gait and power of an elephant, she is a strong if remote figure.

Madhupal uses flashbacks to great effect, both filling in the past and showing different perspectives on incidents. Things that seem black and white become ambiguous, and characters also become more complex and realistic. One of the most rewarding things about watching Ozhimuri was the way more is revealed, completely changing my view without ever being untrue to the characters.

Lal plays Thanu and Thanu’s dad Sivan. Thanu is a hard case but as things are revealed the influences driving his behaviour make him if not sympathetic then relatable. Sivan is a rumbly giant of a man, sentimental and simple. Lal plays Sivan with a twinkle in his eye and Thanu with a perpetual sour twist to his mouth. There is more than just anger driving Thanu. He has mother issues, and he hates and fears strong women. What we would call a street angel and house devil, Thanu is a doting father in his own way and has his father’s softness underneath his mother’s harshness. Lal is compelling throughout. I felt sad for jolly Sivan, and for the boy who would grow up without his warm hearted dad. Lal plays Thanu in such a way that he gained my empathy without resorting to trite sentimental tricks.

Meenakshi is the unsung hero of the film for my money. Mallika brings dignity and grace to Meenakshi, showing her as a woman who endures rather than fights, but who is strong and resilient in her non-confrontational way. She genuinely sees the good in people and tries to keep that in mind. She comes to know what she wants out of life and understands finally what her mother-in-law had tried to teach her. And so she acts. Everyone asks Meenakshi why she wants a divorce but nobody seems to want to really listen, they just want to tell her what she should do. She remains calm and obdurate, using her strength for herself for once. It’s hard to see a woman apparently defending her abuser, but as things progress Meenakshi becomes less of a victim and more a complex woman who made some choices then and is making different choices now. Mallika and Lal have a volatile chemistry that take their characters from domesticity to physical violence in a heartbeat, and they never break that connection or seem out of synch.

Shweta Menon is charismatic and arrogant as Kali Pillai. You can see in Thanu that the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. Even if he didn’t hold a grudge about his father, they would clash and they both had violent streaks. Kali is all about tough love, showing her concern for Meenakshi by constantly picking faults and telling her what to do. She doesn’t like seeing her son overturn the natural order of things and treat his wife like a slave and her pride is wounded by his lack of respect for her. But she never gives up on him really and still tries to protect him in her own way despite their estrangement.

The obvious option would be to have Balamani (Bhavana) represent Meenakshi and go all Girl Power, but instead she is representing Thanu. She is quite socially conservative and believes divorce is bad for families regardless of the situation at home. I liked Bhavana a lot, and she nailed the characterisation of a pretty young professional who is a bit tired of the boys club around her but doesn’t feel the need to rock the boat. Her down to earth conversations with her grandmother are both funny and sad as grandma explains the role of women. Hint – it has a lot to do with breeding. She and Sharath talk about their own families and future plans, and while sometimes it comes across as clunky exposition they help draw out the subtleties of the divorce case.

Asif Ali is extremely likeable as Sharath, the good son who sees his father as Bad and his mother as a victim. As things become less clear cut, he also has to confront his own resemblance to his father and what that might mean. He gets hit with some big truths and I loved that he never made a big deal out of it or insisted anyone choose sides. He absorbed the new knowledge, struggled a bit, then moved forward. He was open to Balamani’s ideas and treated her as a valued friend as well as an eventual lover and future wife. And hurrah for a film where people can have consensual sex and not be hit by a meteor or any other form of judgement.

This is just a gorgeous film to watch. I had some initial concerns because of the topic but I didn’t find the violence was sensationalised or dwelt on beyond what needed to be shown. The performances are all top notch and Madhupal and writer Jeyamohan provide an excellent visual and narrative structure.

For anyone who laments the lack of strong female characters in Indian films, see this. If you’re interested in a sympathetic but not apologetic portrait of family dysfunction, see this. If you like beautifully made films with realistic characters and great production values, see this. 5 stars!