Virus begins with a phone call alerting a crisis. It’s fitting because all sorts of crises, from that of ventilators and kits to manpower to public faith, permeates the film. The film is audaciously unmindful of chronological sequencing of the real life events it draws from; it trusts its audience entirely and thrusts us into the middle of the action, with no setup nor exposition. This 2019 Malayalam language medical thriller, directed and co produced by Aashiq Abu, faithfully recreates the terror and breathless panic that gripped Kerala during the infamous Nipah outbreak in 2018.
What I remember about the virus, despite its prevalence and contamination further down south, is the distinct anxiety and genuine fear that it might catch up with us too. The death toll was around fourteen, but the consternation and utter helplessness around the virus was manifold staggering. Abu, one of the forerunners of the new breed of Malayalam renaissance, understands this perfectly and works cleverly and efficiently to encapsulate and evoke the pandemic human feeling of prejudice and apprehension and disseminate it generously throughout its taut run time.
This is no ringside view of the medical community; Abu takes us wholly and immerses us within the functioning and happenings of public hospitals and government college. Every medical officer, junior most/trainee to health minister, everyone is allowed an unbiased, sensitive and fairly human assessment and treatment. It’s remarkable that by the time the film ends, we know as much about the minister or director of health services, played with such heartfelt ease by Tovino Thomas, as we do about the sanitation worker, played by Joju George like a person who if promised something he wants in exchange for services, will work tirelessly to that.
Abu, working with this team of three writers, MuhsinParari, Sharfu and Suhas, treads the gamut of the response to the virus. We see the initial uncertainty and sheer unfamiliarity of the administration as it is faced with this baffling disease, the eventual relentless dreading, and the containment, which entailed a harsh quarantine and almost cruelly curtailed social life of the affected or the likely. Conspiracy theorists, who whisper about the virus being a bio-terrorist weapon, and people deliberately politicizing the situation are also given room in the narrative, but the film decisively takes no political stance.
Abu locates every possible fear, stages it and places it at troubling close quarters for the viewer. Conscientiously and meticulously, Abu constructs, beat by beat, the ironically claustrophobic dizzying paranoia and slow by steady accretion of confidence in the health staff. The detailing is incredibly attentive to every nuance, the researching has been clearly diligent but it has been so intelligently woven into the script that the facts don’t glare amateurishly or are capitalized instead they are communicated gradually. He sticks to a matter of fact, unvarnished and neat style but ensures a certain element of unpredictability through the back and forth hyperlink narration and keeps the viewer absolutely invested in the proceedings.
Abu preserves the humanity and the magnificence of human spirit as the soul of the film. He touches upon the elemental kindness of humans and that is refreshing but reveals the horrors that can get embroiled with such acts. His gaze is unmistakably compassionate and surprisingly, beautifully tender. Virus celebrates the everyday courage exhibited by the Keralites, from ambulance drivers and contract workers to top tier officials, and their exceptional resilience. But Abu is too smart an artist to let his film eulogize the government as well.
The film is a technical marvel. SushinShyamal’s music is spare and never resorts to hysteric, loud BGM to convey the palpable tension. What is admirable is despite the inextricable urgency of the events, the tension isn’t sledgehammered. Rajeev Ravi’s cinematography has none of the frantic energy of the usual slick thrillers, instead he uses a documentary style, distilled into a placid ease with the craft. The montage that shows in a dystopian way the state’s scenario is breathtaking, and the moment when Tovino Thomas’ district collector, despite his rank, talks like equals to people, in hope of recruiting volunteers, and his plea for solidarity is moving. He talks about the small miracles that reaffirm humanity, and how everybody is unobtrusively chipping in to help, claiming no attention for his generosity.
It’s a testament to Abu’s skill that he places all his actors on an equal footing. It is a crackling A list ensemble and all his actors are wonderfully cooperative, nobody oversteps nor tries to steal thunder, everybody quietly shines and gets his or her moments. Revathy and Parvathy have significant screen time but even the sanitation manager leaves an impression. The narration remains consistently unfussy and no frills, the various strands are intelligently tied into a masterful whole.
Virus ends on a beautifully chilling note, as a reminder of its theme of the various facets and aspects of compassion and what it can engender. It is a spectacular coup de grace that concludes a film which is a rare example of a collaborative vision, executed flawlessly.