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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Qarib Qarib Singlle

Jaya (Parvathy) is a single woman, busy with her career and an array of friends who rely on her for help. She has been a widow for around ten years, and there is something both wistful and a little salacious in the way she notices signs of sex all around her. She wants to move on but is a bit conservative when it comes to dating publicly, and is wary of losing someone she loves again. But she sets up a profile on a dating site and one response stands out amongst all the sleazy ones. She sets up a coffee date with Yogi (Irrfan, still so fancy he needs no last name). He is a scruffy and unpretentious bloke who seems to say whatever is on his mind. Yogi is convinced his exes are all still pining for him while Jaya is pining for her dead husband. Through one of the few really clunky exchanges in the film, they agree to go on a roadtrip and visit his exes. They can get to know each other on their co-funded separate bedrooms holiday, and Yogi believes Jaya will come to see what a catch he is.

Parvathy is impressive as Jaya, initially quite stitched up but revealing more of her hopes and desires as she opens up under Yogi’s impulsive influence. Jaya is a career woman and Parvathy is authoritarian as a hardarse manager but in Jaya’s personal life she shows the fragility and caution that has stopped her from really moving on. She has wonderful chemistry with Irrfan and as she warms to Yogi I found I was seeing him differently too. In some scenes the sparkle of laughter in her eyes could be genuine amusement at his outrageous behaviour. When Jaya lets herself go she is physically braver than Yogi, while he seems socially and emotionally more robust. Jaya often interacts directly with the camera and Parvathy is amazingly skilled at acknowledging that we are watching and aware without breaking out of Jaya’s character. Jaya finds herself tagging along with a carefree and chaotic guide, and between the stress, fights, and hilarity she reconnects with life. That sounds grand but this is an intimate and very personal story.

Irrfan is charming and funny as Yogi – who could almost be a Manic Pixie Dream Manchild (MPDMc). He is entirely comfortable with himself, and has a deep and possibly delusional confidence in his charms. Yogi needs to let go of his past too although he doesn’t recognise his nostalgia as toxic. He is a catalyst if not a wrecking ball. Yogi can’t help himself from going off on tangents and has a very lax approach to time management and logistics. And I won’t start on his fashion sense. He would have driven me mad. But he is a kind and intelligent man, and Jaya responds to his curiosity about her. Some of the antics are clearly just for the sake of having something go wrong at that point to force Jaya off onto another tangent, and Yogi bears the burden of the poor decision making based comedy. But Irrfan plays his scenes with Jaya with wit and warmth and only a few lapses into acting school improv shenanigans. As an MPDMc Yogi did get on my nerves but I was relieved and happy when Jaya called him out on those behaviours, and also appreciated his response. If, like me, you liked Irrfan in Piku or Life in a Metro, then I think you’ll enjoy this performance too.

The extended trip and varied transport allows for other characters to enter and leave the story without taking up too much space. Also I greatly enjoyed the dashboard decoration of one taxi, fake grass and all. Yogi does spend some time with his exes but the glimpses of their lives look like they are all well and happy, not hung up on him at all. Neha Dhupia is all glamour and self-assurance as his legendary second love. I also enjoyed the direct life advice from the taxi driver played by…someone whose name I have neglected to note.

The story meanders across India from Mumbai to Rishikesh and Gangtok and elsewhere, using planes, trains, taxis and autos. Tanuja Chandra and Eeshit Narain manage to make every location look breathtakingly beautiful and instantly recognisable without resorting to tourist brochure clichés. The golden afternoon light and conversations under the stars create an atmosphere that keeps things anchored in the world and avoids feeling stagey in the dialogue heavy scenes. The music is largely used in the background but when made a focus it seemed that the lyrics were pertinent to the drama. There are no big production numbers and that is just perfect for this film.

The mechanism to get the roadtrip underway was highly contrived, the material is a bit thin in places, and the ending is a little too rushed. But the journey in the middle is charming, infuriating, and ultimately uplifting largely due to the excellent work by Parvathy and Irrfan. One to see if you like a sensible and respectful approach to your rom coms.

Charlie (2015)

Charlie

Charlie is simply an amazing work of art. From the stunning apartment where Tessa (Parvathy) takes refuge from her interfering family to the many and glorious shades of green of the hill station she visits, the vibrant colours of Kerala radiate from every frame. The lead characters are equally colourful – literally, in their tendency to wear bright Bohemian clothing and figuratively in their offbeat personalities that blend seamlessly into the intriguing yet deceptively simple storyline. The film shows Tessa’s search for Charlie, a man she knows only through other people’s perceptions but someone who may be her soul mate, if only she can find him. Director Martin Prakkat does a fantastic job of keeping the film engaging right to the last frame, and with an excellent cast and beautiful music from Gopi Sunder, Charlie is a great start to a new year of cinema.

Tessa (Parvathy) is the unconventional daughter in a conventional family who arrives home just in time to celebrate her brother’s engagement but takes off again as soon as her own marriage is discussed. Tessa is part bohemian nonconformist and part spoilt brat as she refuses to contact anyone in her family apart from her grandmother, even going to the extreme of destroying her phone SIM to ensure her privacy. She gives up her job in Bangalore (money doesn’t ever seem to be an issue) and rents an apartment in an old hotel, but when she arrives finds that the previous tenant left most of his belongings behind. Since these include an eclectic mix of furnishings and artwork as well as an accumulation of rubbish, brewing equipment and a goat on the balcony, Tessa is unimpressed by her new surroundings, particularly when strange people appear in her apartment too. However the charm of her musical neighbours and the beauty of her surroundings soon begin to work their magic, persuading Tessa to stay.

Unlike Tessa, I totally loved this apartment from the very first moment and cannot wait for the DVD release so that I can pause, rewind and absorb every small detail of the room. Every frame shows yet another fascinating sculpture or curious work of art and it’s somewhere I could happily live – even with the goat on the balcony!

Apart from being visually spectacular, the exotic and surreal décor adds a fantasy element to the storyline that’s further enhanced here in the song Oru Karimukilinu

Once she deals with the disorder in the room, a photograph and an unexpected phone call kindle Tessa’s interest in the former occupant. When she then finds an unfinished comic strip describing the events of one night, Tessa becomes obsessed with finding the author and discovering what really happened and how the story ends. As part of her search she meets Sunikuttan (Soubin Shahir), the burglar who features in the drawings and who helps Tessa connect to other people in Charlie’s life.

As Tessa begins her search for the elusive Charlie (Dulquer Salmaan), she discovers that he’s a fly-by-night kind of guy who doesn’t seem to take life seriously. From various sources she learns that Charlie appears unexpectedly, interferes in peoples’ lives and then takes off again. The implication is that he’s a free spirit who appears only to do good, except that his actions don’t always have a happy outcome. The more people she meets and the more she finds out about Charlie, the more questions Tessa has, and the more connected she seems to feel to a person she has never met.

Parvathy is excellent as slightly dippy Tessa, and I love a heroine who wears glasses without losing them at the end in a ‘fashionable make-over’. Although some of her idiosyncrasies don’t quite come off, such as wearing unmatching sandals and her almost paranoid avoidance of her family, mostly her character is sympathetically portrayed. The obsessive nature of Tessa’s search for Charlie does fit in with her personality and her rather haphazard approach to her search also seems plausible. Parvathy strikes a good balance between hippy chick and modern independence and the hints of vulnerability she shows are nicely nuanced to fit with her current lack of direction in life.

Although Dulquer is excellent in his portrayal of the eccentric Charlie, his character is somewhat less successful due to a tendency to veer a little too far off the rails into borderline deranged rather than keeping to eccentrically bohemian territory. Dulquer also tries for a deep belly laugh which came across rather forced at times and doesn’t gel with the rest of his persona. However despite his occasional crazy escapades Charlie is basically a nice guy, and Dulquer gets that feel good aspect of his personality across well. I could have done without the shaggy beard look, but I loved his costumes and Charlie’s generally relaxed and casual approach to life. There is a magic to the character too that is smothered by too much mania, but when writers Unni R and Martin Prakkat allow the mysterious element full rein the effect is enchanting.

The rest of the cast are also good in more serious roles that give structure to the story and highlight the unconventionality of Charlie and Tessa just that little bit more. Aparna Gopinath is excellent as Kani, a doctor with a difficult past, giving her character some dignity when faced with Charlie’s more spontaneous decisions. Kani works at a retirement hill station of sorts where Charlie has gathered an eclectic mix of people with the most notable being Kunjappan (Nedumudi Venu) who has his own love story to tell. These diversions into other people’s lives along the way help to define Charlie to Tessa and slowly lead her towards her ultimate goal of finding the man himself. The brief stories are full of emotion too and while each successfully gives another layer to Charlie, they also enhance the film in their own right, adding depth and shade to the screenplay.

Jomon John’s cinematography is spectacular and his camera captures the beauty and colour of Kerala, weaving them into the magical storyline. The quirky story is captivating and Parvathy is a delight to watch as she follows in Charlie’s footsteps, always that one step behind. I loved every moment, even the excessively loud craziness of Dulquer’s Charlie and this is a film I will want to watch again and again. Beautiful music, an offbeat story, colourful characters and all the wonderful sets make Charlie well worth catching in the cinema and a film I highly recommend. Don’t miss it!