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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Maari 2

Balaji Mohan revisits the concept of the bad Don that everyone loves to hate, but this time gives the titular character a best friend and a heart of gold that unfortunately reduce Maari’s onscreen impact. The standard mass formula doesn’t help either and the story feels tired despite attempts to refresh it with Sai Pallavi as Maari’s love interest and Krishna Kulasekaran as bestie Kalai. Still, in terms of generic gangster flick it’s not totally terrible, and there are a few flashes of the ‘old Maari’ while Tovino Thomas is better than the script deserves as the film’s villain. Overall the film is entertaining enough for a one-time watch, but as a sequel Maari 2 doesn’t come close to matching the appeal of the original.

Maari 2 opens well with the 100thassignation attempt on Maari’s life after which the gang celebrate his continued survival in plenty of style with cake and a party. A few years have seemingly passed since the end of the first film, and Maari’s boss Velu has died, leaving the leadership of the gang open. This is where Balaji Mohan adds in the new character of Kalai (Krishna Kulasekaran), the son of Velu and Maari’s best friend since they were both kids. While everyone wants Maari to become the leader (which in itself is a major turnaround from the first film), he proposes Kalai takes charge while he remains in the background.

Maari is seen to be trying to do the right thing, even as he cracks the usual jokes and slaps around his henchmen, Sani (Robo Shankar) and Adithangi (Kalloori Vinoth). Despite the loud shirts, sunglasses and gold chains, this Maari is a totally different character, with one of the biggest changes being the attitudes of the people around him – the only people who hate him now are the rival gangs. Adding to this newfound popularity, Maari has a stalker in the form of auto driver Aanandhi (Sai Pallavi) who refuses to be put off her attempts to coerce Maari into a relationship, despite Maari’s truly appalling treatment. The reason for her devotion is revealed later in the film but appears simply as a blatant attempt to appear feminist-aware and completely misfires given the film’s general attitude towards women and Aanandhi in particular. 

Aanandhi states that she isn’t a “loosu ponnu”, but she veers uncomfortably close while her character initially appears mainly as a butt for numerous jokes. Although Aanandhi tries to give as good as she gets, she’s limited by her determination to make Maari fall in love with her, and as a result does look just like any typical mass film heroine. The hearty demeanour of the character and over-the-top attempts to gain Maari’s attention don’t work well either despite Sai Pallavi doing her best to make her character sympathetic. Where she does shine however is in the songs, and her dancing in Rowdy Baby in particular is simply superb. Her energy is amazing and she matches Dhanush step for step, in some parts even surpassing him for passion and commitment to the routine. Prabhu Deva provides the choreography and ensures that Rowdy Baby is the most memorable song of the film.

Tovino Thomas plays the villain Beeja, aka Thanathos. Although he is first seen in a prison cell, Beeja is portrayed as a more intellectual gangster, speaking in English and using the name of the Greek god of death as his alias. However, he’s still the crazy psychopath Tamil cinema loves to have as a mass villain, since he sports dreadlocks, a gold tooth and has scrawled the words “Kill Maari” all over the walls of his prison cell. No doubts at all then about his plans for the hero. Tovino Thomas is an accomplished actor, and in the first half of the film he does a better than average job of making Beeja a more menacing character than his overdone theatrical traits would suggest. Unfortunately, he is let down by the plodding dialogue and nonsensical storyline in the second half, while the final fight sequence doesn’t do much for either Tovino or Dhanush. The later channels his inner Salman Khan in a rather unnecessary shirtless fight scene, while Tovino’s character rolls over much too easily for someone who has made the death of his opponent his driving force for the last few years.  

Varalaxmi Sarathkumar makes yet another appearance as a respectable member of government, this time as IAS Officer Vijaya Chamundeswariin charge of law and order. It’s a role with a rather similar feel to her last appearance in Sarkar and she really only gets to look stern or concerned in roughly equal measures as she hunts for Maari as a potential witness. The rest of the support cast are fine in equally narrow roles, mostly reprising characters from the first film. Worth a mention is Aranthangi Nisha who has a small comedic role as one of the other auto-drivers also named Aanandhi. Most of the fight scenes are well choreographed by Stunt Silva, but there isn’t anything that stands out as particularly new or innovative. The music too from Yuvan Shankar Raja works well enough within the film, but apart from Rowdy Baby none of the songs are memorable after leaving the cinema. Om Prakash captures the colour and energy of Maari and his sidekicks and I did like his contrasts between the worlds of Maari and Beeja. Both are gangsters in the same area of Chennai, but Maari is always bright while Beeja revels in dark costumes and equally dark lighting.  

While there are a few flashes of the old Maari, for the most part he is a more considerate and thoughtful character this time round. This softening of the character is completed by the romance with Aanandhi and without the ‘gangster everyone loves to hate’ persona as a point of difference from other gangster flicks, Maari 2 is just another mass masala movie. Even Dhanush seems at times to be unsure exactly which role he is supposed to be playing as he switches between callous gangster, the infuriated target of Aanandhi’s advances, caring friend and concerned lover. It’s only in the first of these that Maari 2 really comes to life and these are without doubt the best parts of the film. Further déjà vu comes from numerous references to Rajinikanth films, particularly in the second half, and the overall unlikeliness of the story further reduces the impact of the film. However, if all that you want is a potboiler gangster story with plenty of fight scenes, some good comedy and the odd dance sequence then Maari 2 fulfils all of that and adds just a little bit more. 

Theevandi (2018)

TheevandiSmoking is not something you see very often in Australia since there are laws that prohibit lighting up in most public spaces. As a result, a film that’s all about smoking seems a really strange topic to me, especially one that seems to treat the subject matter so lightly. It’s also quite ironic that the story ensures there are statutory warning notices displayed on the screen almost constantly, and in addition to the smoking and drinking warnings, there are also warnings about not wearing a motorcycle helmet, not wearing a seat belt and a declaration at the start advising that violence against women is a crime. However, Tovino Thomas makes this meandering story worth watching as he transforms from a clean-shaven school boy to a bearded and chain-smoking adult with an interest in local politics. Not a must-see drama, but a pleasant excursion in good company that benefits from a strong central cast and a generally upbeat approach.

The film starts with a birth, but the baby doesn’t breathe until his uncle blows a puff of smoke into the baby’s face – not a recommended way to start a child breathing! After this medical miracle, young Bineesh (Maheen) grows up as a normal village kid, although the local shopkeeper (Jaffer Idukki) is used to him buying cigarettes for his uncle Sugunan (Sudheesh) and using the change to buy sweets and snacks. This makes the teenage Bineesh (Tovino Thomas) the ideal person to send for cigarettes when the group of school friends decides to try smoking one day after school. While the others cough and splutter, Bineesh has no problems, since after all, his first breath was full of cigarette smoke. Oddly, while the students are having their first experience of smoking, their cigarettes are blurred out, I guess in some sort of censorship decision. It must be the school uniform that’s the issue, since the same actors are shown moments later without any blurring when they are supposedly older, but it still makes very little sense.

Tovino Thomas makes a convincing teenager, mainly due to his posture and body language, but he really hits his stride as the adult Bineesh. By this stage his smoking has become a chain habit that earns him the nickname of Theevandi, after the old-fashioned smoky steam trains. Bineesh hangs around the village with his friends, and doesn’t appear to have any gainful employment, although he seems to have a reasonably ready supply of cash to keep buying cigarettes. I was expecting some of the usual family rows with Bineesh being forced by his father to find a job, but his family seem happy to let him drift, although there is an undercurrent of concern about his smoking.

There’s a glimmer of hope on the horizon though as Bineesh is in love with Devi (Samyuktha Menon) who has promised to marry him only if he gives up his disgusting and smelly habit. But Bineesh doesn’t take her seriously and only pays lip-service to the idea, with his nonchalance and lack of commitment eventually resulting in a breakdown of their relationship. Samyuktha Menon is very good here and she gets the balance between heady romance and responsible common-sense just right. She’s the one who climbs up ladders in the middle of the night to speak to Bineesh, but she’s also the one with a job and a much clearer idea of where she wants to go and how to get there. Devi is a strong character who has the determination not only to stand up to her parents, but also to turn her back on Bineesh when he lies and hides his habit from her.

Bineesh is an interesting character and Tovino is excellent in this portrayal of a young man who his happy to drift until he works out what he wants from life – although he’s pretty clear that he wants Devi to be a part of it. As long as he can continue smoking , which is really his only other passion. To be fair, he’s probably more passionate about smoking than Devi, and certainly shows more emotion when faced with circumstances that force him to give up cigarettes. Despite this imbalance, the relationship between Devi and Bineesh is charming and sweet, with a realistic approach to the conflict between them. Oddly, although there is a warning at the start of the film, it’s Devi who slaps Bineesh every time she sees him smoking, and not surprisingly this isn’t a strategy that succeeds.

Writer Vini Vishwa Lal brings in a political angle with Vijith (Saiju Kurup) who is married to Bineesh’s sister. Vijith is active in the local party and Bineesh and his friends become involved as a result. One of the leading party members is Devi’s father Madhu (Suraaj Venjatammoodu), who generally disapproves of Bineesh and isn’t keen at all on the proposed marriage with his daughter. Adding fuel to the fire, Madhu becomes involved in a struggle with Vijith for the leadership after the party leader Balachandran (Shammi Thilakan) meets with an accident. After arguments and posturing on both sides, the leadership contest comes down to a bet that Bineesh will stop smoking until after a major protest organised by the party. But with Madhu and his supporter Libash (Vijilesh Karayad) determined to win at all costs, Bineesh’s struggle to overcome his addiction becomes a more public battle that he seems unlikely to win.

This is an interesting story that could have made more of Bineesh’s struggle to stop smoking. His initial attempts appear realistically half-hearted and the lengths he goes to in order to hide his smoking from Devi ring true, but the latter half of the film fails to show just how difficult it is to break the habit. Although Tovino Thomas gives a good portrayal of a man driven to the brink by his cravings, director Fellini T.P. takes the easy way out and gives Bineesh no choice other than to break his addiction. The methods employed by Vijith aren’t likely to be useful to anyone genuinely looking for a way to stop smoking and that to my mind seems to be a lost opportunity. The political bun-fighting also seems rather contrived and isn’t helped by Surabhi Lakshmi overacting as the corrupt party secretary. In fact, overall the political thread is weak without any real focus for this part of the story and it’s difficult to know if Fellini was trying to send a message about corruption, or just play the situation for some laughs. The best parts of the film are undoubtably those that focus on Bimeesh’s struggle and the song Oru Theeppettikkum Venda is a perfect example of how well Tovino Thomas portrays this inner conflict.

What also works well are the relationships , particularly between those between Bineesh and his friends, family and Devi. Tovino Thomas makes his character work and despite the vagueness of the screenplay, he keeps his part in the story focused and engaging. The support cast too are generally good and Suraaj Venjatammoodu, Saiju Kurup and Sudheesh excel in their supporting roles. The music from Kailas Menon is lovely and although the songs in the second half are less effective, those in the first half fit well into the narrative. Gautham Sankar does a great job behind the camera and the film looks beautiful with scenes set on an island appearing lush and colourful. This is a thought-provoking concept for a film, but Vini Vishwa Lal and Fellini T.P. seem to have run out of steam half way through, resulting in a film that doesn’t quite succeed as a whole. Nonetheless, it’s worth watching for Tovino Thomas and Samyuktha Menon, and it may perhaps convince people that smoking really can be injurious to your health.