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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How Old Are You?

How Old Are You

How Old Are You? is a completely different film from the last Rosshan’s Andrew’s film I watched, Mumbai Police. Rather than a complex murder mystery, this is a small domestic drama that nonetheless deals with weighty topics such as empowerment and never losing sight of your dreams. It could easily have become preachy given the subject matter but writer duo Bobby-Sanjay keep it light and close enough to home, making it easy to relate to the main protagonist. The title is perhaps a little misleading, since it’s not really Nirupama’s age that’s the issue, but rather her routine life which is slowly grinding her down. The film is the comeback for Manju Warrier and like Sridevi in English Vinglish she brings experience, maturity and a little glamour to a role which seems to suit her very well.

Nirupama (Manju Warrier) is a government employee who isn’t at all engaged in her work. She has no empathy for her clients and secretly reads magazines before going home to look after her family. At the start of the film she is rejected for a job in Ireland due to her age (actually that would be illegal in Ireland – you cannot discriminate against someone due to their age) which means that she won’t be able to accompany her husband Rajeev (Kunchacko Boban) and daughter Lekshmi (Amrith Anil) in their move overseas. Rajeev is fairly unpleasant, but in a way that doesn’t stand out as being unusual or even abusive. He doesn’t notice when Nirupama has changed her hairstyle, and when it’s pointed out to him, he doesn’t like it. He expects his wife to be there and make his dinner, but also to be able to work and earn money during the day. To cap it all off, when he’s involved in a motor vehicle accident he persuades Nirupama to say she was driving to make sure it has no effect on his visa application. But apart from his chauvinistic attitude he’s not a difficult husband. Rajeev and Nirupama seem to have a good relationship and chat amicably about their daughter and their respective workdays without any acrimony. Basically it seems like any other relationship where the wife does what the husband wants because that’s just the way it is, nothing more and nothing less.

However the planned move overseas puts a strain on their relationship, and Lekshmi in particular is obnoxiously bratty about her mother’s failure to get a job in Ireland. One day Lekshmi is part of a group of school children who get to ask the Indian President some questions and so impresses the President that he asks about the origin of her question. When Lekshmi explains it was from her mother, the President (Siddartha Basu) requests a meeting with Nirupama. Unfortunately things don’t go well, and Nirupama finds herself being ridiculed on social media and teased by her work colleagues. This makes her relationship with Lekshmi even more difficult and it seems that no matter what she does, nothing will ever be right. Part of the reason why I feel the film resonates so well is that most people have been in a similar situation at some time in their lives. We’ve all done something stupid, or something we regret and at the time it seems as if there is no way out of the mess without further embarrassment or loss. At any rate, I could definitely relate to Nirupama and her feelings of inadequacy, along with her increasing need for reading glasses and her discovery of grey hairs!

Nirupama’s notoriety allows a former University classmate to track her down and Susan (Kanika) is dismayed by her friends humdrum life. She reminds Nirupama that she was a firebrand and activist at University with plenty of ambition and drive to succeed. Along with the absence of her family who have moved to Ireland as planned, Susan’s memories provide the motivation for Nirupama to kick-start her life. She stands up to her husband and makes a new career for herself – in the process allowing the film makers to add in some valid points about organic farming and the benefits of city food production.

There is a side story involving an older lady who gets the same bus as Nirupama each day. Although the two don’t really know each other, Nirupama helps Madhaviyamma (Sethulakshmi) when she is ill, and gets more out of the relationship than she expected. I would have liked there to be more of Madhaviyamma and her problems, but sadly most of her relationship with Nirupama is skipped over. Mainly the friendship is a plot device to allow Nirupama to realise that she is not the only one with difficulties, and that in fact her problems are rather trivial compared to those of Madhaviyamma. Madhaviyamma also provides the inspiration for Nirupama’s business venture but there is not enough of Sethulakshmi, who does a wonderful job with her role.

There are a number of other familiar faces who appear as part of the support cast, including Vinay Forrt, as one of the office workers, while Thesni Khan and Jayesh Pazhanimala are good as friends of Nirupama. Kanika only appears briefly as Susan, and it’s a strength of the film that Susan doesn’t change Nirupama’s life for her. Susan is after all more successful with plenty of connections and the ability to give Nirupama a new job or bail her out financially, but instead it’s Nirumpama who comes up with the idea that turns her life around. It’s all Nirupama’s dream, her vision and she is the one who sets to and organises everything. With a little help from Madhaviyamma and her boss Seetharama Iyer (Devan).

Although mainly the film is realistic in the portrayal of relationships and in the intimacies of Nirupama’s life, the plot is occasionally rather too fanciful. The episodes with the Indian President seem unlikely, although the fuss and security around the visit is plausible, and the whole Immigration plot is generally rather nonsensical. Nirupama also seems to turn her life around rather more easily than I expected. However, the basic idea of a woman caught in a rut of her own devising is one which appeals, particularly when the character is played so skilfully as here. I felt most of Nirupama’s reactions were accurate in portraying how an average person would behave in similar situations, and her ideas and new business venture seemed to fit her general persona. It’s always good to have such a powerful female figure as the lead in a film, and How Old Are You? has a strong message and excellent cast too. Well worth a watch for Manju Warrier, Sethulakshmi and the idea that you’re never too old to change your life. 4 stars.