‘VIRUS‘ is the 2019 Malayalam movie based on the first of its kind Nipah outbreak in Kerala. Before it goes around capturing the finer details of a deadly epidemic outbreak, its roots and subsequent trauma, VIRUS, opens to the setting of a beehive-like Government Medical College hospital, having an earnest medical wing at work without any break. The thumping background music during the title sequence makes you wonder whether it’s your own heart trying to break out of your ribcage.
Aashiq Abu is an accomplished craftsman and an auteur. Ever since his first movie, he always had a clear idea about the theme of the movie that he’s going to make. Moreover, that’s how he conceives the title songs of his movies. You can see it in the hero worship song form the son dedicated to his father in “Daddy” from Daddy Cool. Or the “Chempaav” song, spelling out the star dishes from all ends of Kerala in Salt n Pepper. Or “Chillane” song depicting virtues of being a woman from 22 Female Kottayam. Or “Enthaan Bhai”, a song about self-love and accepting who you are from Da Thadiya. I could go on. However, let’s leave that for another occasion.
Going into the movie, I was of the notion that it belonged to the survival thriller genre. But as the title credits began to roll on the backdrop of the doctors working round the clock, I felt it belonged to a medical drama genre. However, as the end credits rolled, the movie cemented its genre to be docufiction with a hyperlink narrative.
With a stellar cast, a gripping pace, and a subject matter as hard to shake as the disease that spreads through its story, VIRUS is a winner. (When your first instinct after seeing the movie is to attempt not to touch anything on your way home and not to be overly physical with anyone.) Though some cast members have more camera time than others – Poornima Indrajith and Parvathy, for instance, who were first-rate, and Kunchacko Boban, Indrajith, Asif Ali & Soubin, in meaty, satisfying roles — the film is a powerful ensemble piece in which no one hogs the spotlight. The breakout role in the movie would be Sreenath Bhasi’s, Dr Abid. I’m a stranger to the world of medicine and hospitals, having had to visit casualty only once or twice in my whole life, but I felt that with his role as a Second Year Junior Resident, Bhasi delivers his maximum. He probably had significant inputs from the house surgeons or other residents, but still, the shots of him giving CPR (probably the first time on screen I’m seeing someone giving CPR sweating), checking reflex, and reassuring patients fool your brain into thinking that he belongs in the environment.
The screenplay, credited to Muhsin Parari, Suhas and Sharfu, is so intense and layered and there is never a dull moment. The writing sans any lag prevents the viewers from looking away as they are bombarded by new developments every minute. They focused the first half on fear and the dread, and the second half on survival and of course turns almost into an investigative procedural. The screenplay carefully knits together various characters and incidents, and despite chances of losing track at a few points, it manages to keep you engaged, partly due to the tight editing by Saiju Sreedharan. Saiju also refrains from differentiating present and past shots, which may alienate some viewers. However, that proves to be harmless during the narrative. Saiju helmed one of the most elegantly edited sequences in Kumbalangi Nights earlier this year (The sequence between Saji and Bobby explaining their family history to the Psychologist and Baby respectively), and he continues to impress. The movie is a celebration of well planned and executed L cuts, J cuts, Match cuts and Cross cuts
Rajeev Ravi’s cinematography, with additional cinematography provided by Shyju Khalid, was remarkable. Sometimes you tend to squirm in your seats when the camera gets uncomfortably close to the patients. The Red and Green lighting that was prevalent throughout the posters and on screen, and even on the Promo Song “Spread Love” really managed to elevate the scenes. The alienation these colours brought to the already tense air was phenomenal.
Sushin Shyam is on a roll, and even when there’s no song in the movie, it speaks volume about his work when you see people wondering who made the music. Because his contribution heightens the emotions conveyed through the course of the movie. He is the one that fills you with dread with the sense of impending doom. He is the one who fills you with hope as the two surviving patients meet in the hospital corridor.
VIRUS will take you through many emotional rollercoasters. There are no commercial elements nor any gimmicks in the movie which you might expect — however, it is a neatly crafted movie where the whole cast and crew did their jobs perfectly. This one is infectious enough to make you skip a heartbeat or evoke tears. It’s more than just a film; it’s humanity joining hands to beat a deadly disease. For me, it was the feeling the movie gave that is unexplainable.
Given the subject matter, it’s surprising how VIRUS doesn’t unfold like a hospital-based TV drama. Jargon pops up in seemingly organic and essential moments; it’s explained well, too. Emotional moments are used selectively, grounding the film in humanity without becoming maudlin (or manipulative). The subplots involving the Vaidyars and the insinuation that the whole thing might be a weaponised terrorist attack hovers dangerously close to excess but manages to pull away from the brink. VIRUS hangs together perfectly well as a movie, though sometimes it looks like a collection of ardently tense mini-dramas represented by the ensemble cast: Aashiq Abu is much less keen on showing the fear and despair of ordinary people, and the sense of loss. However, I believe that on the onset of a second Nipah outbreak, maybe the fear being downplayed might’ve been the better act. Instead, the movie educates us, assures us, and encourages us to place our faith on humanity.
Definitely worth the theatre experience.