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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Junga (2018)

Junga

A Vijay Sethupathi film never fails to be entertaining even when, as in this case, the story fails to impress. Gokul’s latest is a comedy that alternates between some hilarious, laugh-out-loud moments and scenes that fall conspicuously flat, mainly due to the ridiculous plot. When the comedy is good, it’s very good, but when it’s bad it’s pretty meh and not helped at all by the glaring plot holes. Still, Junga is not meant to be taken seriously, and Vijay Sethupathi strolls through all the mayhem raising laughs with his take on a parsimonious criminal out to win back his family fortune.

The film starts with Junga (Vijay Sethupathi) being removed from jail by two policemen who plan to kill him in an encounter. Sadly, despite the presence of Rajendran as one of the officers, these are some of the least successful scenes in the film where the dialogue seems forced and not remotely amusing. Luckily this is only a brief introduction to allow Junga to begin relating his life story, which is where all the action happens.

The flashback shows Junga as a small-town bus conductor (all comparisons with Baasha are deliberate) whose love for a Telugu girl (Madonna Sebastian) leads to him taking on a persistent and unwanted stalker and his gang of friends. This foray into fighting shocks his mother who reveals that he is genetically predisposed to violence as he is actually the son of Don Ranga and the grandson of Don Lingaa; gangsters who lost all their money due to their extravagant celebrations and poor accounting skills. Junga’s mother (Saranya Ponvannan) and grandmother (Vijaya) bewail the loss of the family fortune, particularly a picture hall in Chennai which was Junga’s mother’s dowry. Junga vows to be a money conscious Don and heads back to Chennai to restore his inheritance along with his best mate YoYo (Yogi Babu).

Junga quickly builds up a reputation as a cheap option for those seeking intimidation or assassination skills, but fails in his attempts to buy back Cinema Paradise from its new owner, Chettiyar (Suresh Chandra Menon).  Plan B involves heading to Paris to kidnap Chettiyar’s daughter Yazhini (Sayyeshaa) and thus force him to hand over the theatre. Naturally all does not go to plan and Junga’s kidnap scheme is foiled by the Italian mafia who have their own plans for Yazhini.

The first half has plenty of excellent comedy, mainly based around Junga’s miserly tendencies and extreme economies to save money. The film is irreverently tongue in cheek and pokes fun at classic Tamil films as well as modern-day tropes and even at the actors themselves, most of which works well. Radha Ravi channels Marlon Brando as the head of the Committee of Dons who are morally outraged by Junga’s discounted thuggery while Yogi Babu provides solid back-up as Junga’s chief henchman.  The first half has some good fight scenes too along with the best of the songs, including the wonderfully colourful Amma Mela Sathiyam.

The second half falters when the action moves to Paris and the Italian mafia muscle in. What does work is Junga’s obvious pain when he realises just how much money he has spent and the various jokes around the confusion between Parry’s (in Chennai) and Paris (in France). Best of all are Saranya Ponvannan and Vijaya who swagger around as a brilliant double act and completely steal the show as Gangster Amma and Gangster Patti. They have the best lines as they try to shake down Chettiyar and it’s great to see Saranya Ponvannan have a chance to step out of her usual standard mother role, albeit in a small way.

What doesn’t work is the whole storyline with the Italian mafia and French police, although we do get a great fight scene with an umbrella and some good car chases. But there are just too many silly plot holes that stop some of the comedy dead in its tracks while the rather contrived romance between Junga and Yazhini doesn’t work at all. After good chemistry with Madonna Sebastian and an amusing end to that whole episode, the love story with Sayyeshaa is limp and anaemic without even the benefit of any comedy to lighten the romance.

As with Oru Nalla Naal Paathu Solren, Vijay Sethupathi gets to wear some outlandish costumes as part of his trip to France and when he plays the roles of his father and grandfather. There is plenty of moustache twirling along with flamboyant gestures which have become Vijay’s signature comedy style, but he is very funny in this persona and his charm and charisma are almost enough to carry the film through the problematic second half. Almost, but not quite. Thankfully, Vijay is ably supported by Yogi Babu and the double act of Saranya Ponvannan and Vijaya who ensure their scenes are funny and help to keep the plot (such as it is) moving along.

Junga is a film that works when the action is kept close to home with the comedy centred on Vijay Sethupathi and his Don Amma and Don Patti. The more action-based sequences disrupt the flow and don’t fit into the overall pace of the film, even though the fight sequences are well choreographed. They also drag out the film which is already overly long by the time Yazhini is kidnapped. However the songs are good, the comedy for the most part is very funny and Vijay Sethupathi is excellent in the title role. Junga isn’t consistent, but it is hilarious in parts and that, along with the enthusiastic cast make it worth at least a one-time watch.

 

Pa Paandi (aka Power Paandi)

Pa Paandi

I watched Dhanush’s directorial debut in Mumbai which meant no subtitles, but the story came across clearly despite a few dialogue heavy scenes. It’s a sweet tale about an older man and his quest for meaning in his life after his non-conventional ways annoy his son one too many times. There are a few overly sentimental moments, but the film succeeds thanks to excellent performances from all involved, a better than average soundtrack and the novel premise of a sexagenarian hero who still packs a punch!

Rajkiran is Paandian Pazhanisami aka Power Paandi, a retired film stuntmaster who has a shelf full of memories after working with the great heroes of Tamil cinema. I love that he is introduced in true filmi style and throughout the film his characterisation is similar to a typical modern day hero – this in spite of the fact that he is in his sixties and retired.

Paandi lives with his son, daughter-in-law and their two children, but unintentionally creates tension in their house with his activities in the neighbourhood. Paandi is a born meddler, whether it’s helping his young neighbours find true love or facing off with the local drug dealers, he can’t seem to help but get into trouble. His son Raghavan (Prasanna) prefers a quiet life and is constantly at odds with his father, prompting Paandi to remember similar incidents from Raghavan’s childhood. It’s a good illustration of how the power in their relationship has shifted over the years and how Raghavan now looks at his father as more irresponsible than his own children. However, for the most part Raghavan is tolerant of his busybody father although it’s clear he resents the extra work caused by his father’s attempts to ‘help’, while his wife does her best to keep the peace. The conflict between the generations is at times clichéd and overdone, but for all that there is a simple sincerity to the relationship, helped by the contrast in Paandi’s friendship with his young neighbour that bolsters the story in the first half.

For his part, Paandi is aware of how he frustrates his son and attempts to keep out of his hair by getting a job. His previous experience in the film industry leads him to try his hand at acting, with Gautham Menon providing a cameo as the exasperated film director trying to make Paandi to deliver his lines. Paandi then goes back to what he knows best and his success in an action scene allows him to relive the past glories of his youth. This is beautifully written to show just how much being appreciated, even in such a small way, means to Paandi. Here is an older man with plenty of experience and much to offer the world, but he has been made to feel irrelevant and unwanted by his family. When Paandi completes his sequence in one take, the accolades of the other stuntmen and the praise of the director (Stunt Silva) are all balm to Paandi’s ears and reaffirm his worth, despite his advanced years. Suddenly he has reason and meaning to his life again and the years drop away.

However, this success is short-lived, as Paandi cannot resist a fight with drug dealers that results in yet another trip to the police station and a more serious argument with Raghavan and Prema (Chaya Singh).  In the aftermath Paandi decides to leave on his treasured bike to search for something to bring meaning back into his life. A chance encounter with a group of similarly aged bikers on the road solidifies his quest into a search for his first love Poonthendral (Revathi).

Naturally there is the obligatory flashback to Paandi’s past – but despite the clichés the romance adds to the story and gives deeper dimension to the character of Paandi. Madonna Sebastian is charming as the young Poonthendral, while Dhanush’s young Paandi does seem exactly the sort of youth who will grow up to be the ageing hero of the first half. The romance is simply told, and it works well with good performances from all of the support cast including Vidyullekha Raman as Poonthendral’s cousin.

When the film moves back into the present day Dhanush seems to hit his stride as director, and the final scenes are well written and effectively filmed to ensure empathy with Paandi and Poonthendral. Revathi is wonderful here and gives her character poise and respectability with just a smidge of mischievousness that makes her instantly likeable. It’s inevitable that we want Paandi to succeed with his romance and there is only one ineptly placed fight in a car park that mars the final half of the film.

The best part of the film for me is the tongue-in-cheek approach to Paandi’s character as a modern-day hero. The usual filmi standards apply, so that Paandi is as quick to get into a fight as any other hero, and similarly with just one blow of his fist he can effortlessly knock the villains into the middle of next week. Rajkiran is excellent in the role and has plenty of charm and enthusiasm, making Paandi a likeable character despite his tendency to solve problems with his fists and his occasional naiveté. The mix of kind-hearted grandfather, lonely retiree, soul-searching wanderer and rejuvenated suitor is well blended with a natural progression that works well as the story develops. One of my favourite moments is after the reunion when Paandi messages Poonthendral on his phone while hiding under the bedclothes. The young man of the flashback is re-captured in that instant, but it’s the experienced older man who turns up on Poonthendral’s doorstep asking why she hasn’t replied.

There are some dips into obvious sentimentality as Dhanush pushes the lack of appreciation for elders by the younger generation, but for the most part he lets the characters just get on with the story. There is also a tendency for the first half to resemble a TV series rather than a movie, but these wrinkles are smoothly ironed out in the second half of the film and overall Dhanush has produced a good directorial début. Perhaps it’s a consequence of working with experienced actors, or possibly as an actor himself Dhanush knows how to get the best from his performers, but everyone here seems perfectly cast and the performances are all excellent. Even the two young actors Chavi and Raghavan are good in their roles and Rinson Simon is superb as Paandi’s young neighbour. The music is good too with Sean Roldan’s background score and songs fitting both the modern and the flashback sequences well.

Writing with Subramaniam Siva, Dhanush has produced a good masala blend with plenty of feel-good vibes for his first film. While technically the film has a few issues, the story works well and the choice of an older hero makes the film individual enough to rise above other romances. Worth watching for Rajkiran, Revathi and the premise that even at the age of 64 it is still possible to find your true-love.