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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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.

Ab Tak Chhappan (2004)

Ab Tak Chhappan Poster

The film opens with a pile of clothes and shoes on a beach, and someone whistling “For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow”. A man is wading in the sea, maybe suicidal, maybe cleansing his sins. Or just washing off the bloodstains on a nice sunny day.

Sadhu Agashe (Nana Patekar) is an encounter specialist. He is honest and pragmatic about what that really means, and is untroubled by any ethical concerns. He is doing a necessary job as the legal system cannot stop gangsters, so extreme measures are required. The cops are basically just another gang in the Mumbai ecosystem. Within the department there are people jostling to take over his prime position. Imtiyaz (Yashpal Sharma) is a sook who wants to be the top cop but lacks Sadhu’s instincts and connections with the useful informers. Shukla (Nakul Vaid) is the wide eyed newbie, determined to deliver justice through state sanctioned murder.

Zameer (Prasad Purandare) is an offshore crimelord, running operations from his luxurious Malaysian retreat. He has a random Australian girlfriend and a strange attachment to Sadhu Agashe, who he often calls for a chat. The cat and mouse game between cop and crim is tense and disarmingly friendly by turns. New Joint Commissioner Suchak (Jeeva) has a different agenda from outgoing Mr Pradhan (Dr Mohan Agashe) and the department has to learn to navigate the new landscape. When Sadhu Agashe is put on the other side of the gun, he uses all the resources at his disposal to try to outwit his adversaries.

Nana Patekar is both ordinary and charismatic, and delivers a compelling performance that carries the film. Agashe is a public servant tasked to kill bad guys and has no obvious ethical issues with his job description. He believes he is taking care of a problem afflicting the general population, the people he swore to protect. His simplicity is deceptive, a man who acts first and stops to feel and care later. His relationship with wife Nammo (Revathi) is loving with lots of nagging and joking in a comfortable couple-y way. She is a political science teacher and yet exhibits no qualms about what her husband does, or the potential danger to herself and their son. I know they have been married for years but I still expected that when Shukla brought his fiancée Vaishali (Hrishitaa Bhatt) over for dinner that they may talk about what it meant, or at least how to get blood out of clothes. It was just such a non-thing in their lives. Revathi is elegant in a comfortable middle class way that suits Nameeta, not blingy or impractical looking. Revathi doesn’t get a lot of dialogue but her silent interactions and bustling about the home show Nammo is the cornerstone of his life. She is warm and grounded which plays well against Nana Patekar’s sharper edges. When people break the unwritten law that keeps family and dependants out of the fray, they mess with the only thing that could influence Sadhu Agashe to be moderate.

Yashpal Sharma and Kunal Vijayakar have prominent supporting roles and play the world weary seen-it-all-before cops to perfection. Justice is not their priority, hitting their targets (literally) is more important.  Nakul Vaid is suitably wide eyed as the rookie on the team. Agashe sees potential in the kid, and shares his jaded wisdom with his protégé but I wouldn’t say the boy was all that innocent to start with. Looking queasy when you shoot someone is not necessarily an indicator of moral fibre. Jeeva is threatening and oozes corruption as Suchak who disrupts the team with his new agenda. Mohan Agashe is weary and understanding as Sadhu’s old boss, the only man he really trusts and respects. Their conversations shed light on Agashe’s motivation and his view of the world, and point out the dangers if he sets a foot wrong.

Shinit Amin set his story in the non-glamorous Mumbai of films like Company and D, a dog eat dog city. Traffic is constant, everyone knows everyone else, the honour code is fairly strong. No matter what happens, gangsters and cops all stop to watch the cricket and even a hardened criminal should be entitled to a cup of tea and a lift home after he has been beaten to a pulp. There are rules. And then there are laws. The film was produced by RGV and it is like the sensible version of (the very disappointing) Department. There is an internal logic, cause and effect, nothing happens out of blind coincidence or guess work.

The background score by Salim-Suleiman is dramatic without being too obtrusive. Their soundscape helps create a sense of urgency and velocity as the protagonists travel through the hurly-burly of Mumbai.  The camera also navigates the rabbit warren of streets homes and office, giving a feeling of being a fly on the wall. Faces are often framed in close up but off centre, maybe to underscore the unknown and secret sides of human nature. Or maybe just because it looks cool. There is a lot going on in the background and periphery as people go about their work and daily business. It’s a lively yet very contained filmi world.

There is a lot of violence and death in the film, but it is almost understated. The characters hardly notice the carnage, so nor did I. I was more interested in the why than the what. And the implication of the corruption of the system and the internecine conflicts was far more frightening than a shooting.

This is a solid film with a well thought out plot and excellent performances. It’s not uplifting but neither is it completely depressing. It is a different way of looking at that filmi chestnut – where do you look for justice? And does doing something bad to prevent something potentially worse ever work out? 4 stars!