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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Sudani from Nigeria

Sudani from Nigeria

Sudani from Nigeria is the heart-warming début film from director Zakariya Mohammed that released in March this year. On the surface it’s a simple story about a Sevens football team from Kerala but underneath there is a thoughtful exploration of the relationships between each of the characters and an occasionally rose-tinted reaction of the local villagers to a foreigner in their midst. The film is charming and funny, while the idea that differences in language, culture and religion can be overcome with just a little compassion is definitely one worth spreading. Soubin Shahir stars alongside newcomer Samuel Abiola Robinson, but it’s the supporting cast who make the most impact and bring much of the warmth and humour to the film.

Majid (Soubin Shahir) manages a Sevens football team on a shoestring budget, paying the players out of their winnings each week. But since they play in a local league there is barely enough to ensure each player gets a share, let alone provide any money for essentials such as petrol for the team van. Majid doesn’t have any other job either, so he’s reliant on his mother for a roof over his head, although his estranged relationship with his mother’s second husband makes this difficult. Majid refuses to speak to his stepfather (K.T.C. Abdullah) and goes out of his way to avoid meeting him whenever he returns home. This isn’t as often as might be expected since his stepfather doesn’t live at home, but works as a security guard some distance away and stays there during the week. All of this puts a lot of strain on Majid’s mother Jameela (Savithri Sreedharan) who struggles with her son’s attitude and her husband’s absence. Luckily she has her friend Beeyumma (Sarasa Balussery) for company and with their down to earth humour and solid approach to problems, the pair are the heart and soul of the film.

Despite his financial woes, Majid has managed to recruit three African players, all called Sudani by the locals despite none of them actually being from Sudan. Their star striker Samuel Abiola Robinson tries to explain that they are actually from a different African country, which leads to Samuel being called ‘Sudani from Nigeria’, or Sudu for short.

The African players all seem to live together in a small flat in the town and overall the team seems a typical local side, with everyone knowing everyone’s family and all pitching in to keep the side going. Things get complicated when Samuel is injured during an accident, leading to a period of extended bed rest. Majid’s financial problems mean that the team cannot afford to pay for Samuel to stay in hospital, so instead Majid brings Samuel home to his mother and asks Jameela to look after him. Samuel speaks little Malayalam and mainly converses in broken English, while Jameela and Beeyumma don’t speak or understand English at all and only ever speak to Samuel in Malayalam. Nevertheless, a bond grows between Samuel and his carers, while everyone in the village comes around to speak to the injured striker and welcome him into their community.

The film works well due to the gentle mix of comedy and drama, with a slice-of-life approach that suits the simple story. Attention is given to develop all the characters, even those who only have a small role such as the marriage broker, who is arrogant and secure in the knowledge that he has all the power in his transactions with Majid, or the busy nurse in the hospital who berates Majid and his friends for not alerting her to an issue with Samuel’s drip as they are all too busy watching football on their mobile phones. Even though they only brush up against Majid and Samuel for an instant, each of these roles is important and everyone has their own story to tell. Zakariya Mohammed develops the different relationships well and the interactions between the different characters are beautifully written and filmed. It’s all these small details and the interactions between the characters that make the film work – Jameela arranging a ceremony for Samuel when his mother dies, even though she is Muslim and he is Christian, an elderly man demonstrating yoga positions for Samuel and a young couple who come to take a selfie with the foreigner. Each of these scenes feels incredibly real and genuine, while a light touch of humour and the occasional hint of trouble keep the film from ever feeling too saccharine sweet.

Soubin Shahir is excellent as the football-addicted team manager, who has devoted his entire life to football and his team, despite the effects such devotion has had on other aspects of his life. His difficult relationship with his step-father is woven throughout the narrative and provides a jarring but powerful counter note to the friendship that develops between Majid and Samuel. Soubin brings a number of key elements to his character including a certain nerdiness that has left Majid as a football manager rather than a player and star of the field, bashful attempts to find a wife, a constant awareness of his money problems and a determination to look after Samuel even as he ignores his step-father. Samuel Abiola Robinson has a more difficult role in some respects as he literally has little voice in the film, but he still does a good job at making Samuel an empathetic character. Much of this is down to his smile and determination to get back to playing football. There is a flashback to give some understanding of his situation at home, but it’s his bewildered acceptance of Malayalam village traditions that makes the most impact as he tries to cope with Jameela, Beeyumma and the rest of the villagers.

Savithri Sreedharan and Sarasa Balussery are simply brilliant as Majid’s mother and her best friend, and their method of looking after Samuel is hilarious and at the same time very touching. Their mannerisms are perfect for the characters and although they appear as typical village mothers, there is so much more to each that Zakariya cleverly explores with his screenplay and Muhsin Parari’s excellent dialogues. They each bring a mix of comedy, compassion, drama and warmth that works perfectly and provides a solid backbone for the rest of the story. The rest of the support cast are just as good with Navas Vallikkunnu, Ashraf Thangal and Abhiram Pothuval very funny as  Majid’s friends Latheef, Bavakka and Kunjippa and Aneesh Menon as rival football manager Nizar. Together they all form a tight-knit community that all work together despite having few resources to fund their passion.

Cinematographer Shyju Khalid ensures the film looks fantastic and Rex Vijayan’s songs and background music suit the mood, in particular the enthusiastic anthem to football!

The mix of characters, touches of humour and focus on relationships all ensure Sudani from Nigeria is a touch above the usual village-based drama and although the story might not hold any surprises, the film, and particularly the finale definitely draw on the heart strings. Adding football into a Malayalam film was a new thought for me as I hadn’t realised the popularity of the sport in Southern India, but it works well to add action and a dash of excitement too. If you like your sports films to be more about the action off the field, or prefer a novel approach to family and relationships, then this could be the film for you. 4½ stars.