How do you make a thriller when your audience already knows the details? How do you build the suspense when the viewers are one step ahead of the characters on screen, because they're watching events unfold from the past, a past with which they're only too familiar?
Aashiq Abu's Virus, a multi-starrer with the best of the Malayalam film industry in its cast and technical crew, is nothing short of a tribute to all those who withstood and fought back the outbreak of the Nipah virus in Kerala last year. There were two ways to make this movie - hijack the lives of real persons and exploit it for a dramatic experience or weave a story without such an invasion of privacy and yet make it intriguing for the audience. The second, thankfully, is the route that the director and his team of writers - Muhsin Parari, Sharfu and Suhas - have chosen, not giving into the temptation of milking a tragedy.
The film doesn't waste any time in unnecessary diversions. From the word go, we're thrown into the ordered chaos of the medical world. Abid (Sreenath Bhasi, spot on) is a government medical college student who is trying to balance his love life with his grueling shifts at the hospital. Sara (Madonna Sebastian), also a student, is his girlfriend and there's a rift between the two - she may well marry someone else. But the young man has no time to nurse his wounded heart; there's an accident case, an elderly woman who has suffered a stroke, and a host of other patients to whom he must attend.
None of these is a Nipah patient yet but Aashiq takes the time to take us through the hospital routine, Rajeev Ravi's camera (additional cinematography by Shyju Khalid) exposing the human body as a sack of leaking liquids. What happens when a deadly virus steps into this rush? Isn't it unfair to expect the medical community to forget about the risk that they're subjecting themselves to and only think of public welfare, especially when they're underpaid and have so little rest? Yet, this is what many of them do despite having their fears.
Virus does not glorify its heroes; it keeps them human. Nobody in the film enters the frame giving off a "Dr Sunny from America" vibe. From Babu, a mortuary worker (an excellent Joju George), to a senior health official Baburaj (Indrajith offering some muted comic relief) who is in a troubled marriage, they're all fallible human beings who rise to the occasion. As the pressure mounts on the administration (Revathy, Poornima and Tovino Thomas presenting the state's face), the film takes us through the kind of difficulties that the government and health officials had to overcome to contain the spread of the disease.
Virus doesn't underestimate the intelligence of the audience at any point, avoiding unnaturally long explanations when people from the medical community are speaking to each other. It's enough if the characters know what they're talking about, even if we may not catch all the jargon. That's only secondary to the story that Virus wants to tell, for this film is all about heart - about a nurse Akhila (the brave sister Lini played by an expressive Rima Kallingal) who steals a moment away from the busy ward to speak to her husband in Dubai; about a family eaten up with guilt because one of their own infected others and caused their death; about a mother breaking down in front of a health worker when she speaks of the stigma she's experienced after her son's death; about a couple estranged from their respective families and struggling to keep their love intact; about a doctor sleeping on an uncomfortably narrow bed (an effective Kunchacko Boban) and waking up to drink a glass of tea with a subdued smile.
Aashiq does not stretch any of these little stories beyond their scope; what we get are quick portraits. Babu's son telling him not to use one strap of the bag...and when asked if it's for "fashion", the son merely says, "No, it's already frayed and may snap." Babu and his wife (Remya Nambeessan) just exchange a glance, but the pain hits all of us.
Anyone who has followed the Nipah story in the news would know how the infection started and spread. But still, when the puzzle is presented before us, we're eager to know how they solved it. Parvathy plays Annu, the "CID" (there's a lovely moment when she smiles in self satisfaction at the label conferred upon her) who keeps going at the problem till she arrives at an explanation which makes sense. Parts of this may have been fictionalised to add to the mystery but the film does so without causing offence. There's also a political angle which comes in, a whiff of Islamophobia - but then, like I said, this is a film about heart and that wins over everything.
With so many big names in the film, it's difficult to pick out performances which stand out. Is it Soubin as the half crazed Unnikrishnan? The paranoid cop played by Dileesh Pothan? The director of Sudani from Nigeria, Zakariya, playing a compassionate man of the same name? Rima Kallingal as Akhila, gasping and conveying through her oxygen mask whatever details she knows of the case, still doing her duty as a responsible nurse? Savithri Sreedharan as a grieving mother? Perhaps the best part of the film is that none of the actors have been selfish about their screen time and have been happy to play second fiddle to the script.
The central nervous system of Virus is the medical mystery but it's the small sub-plots which branch off from it that make the film human. Not all of these may be equally compelling but when the sterile quarantine suits seem too much to take, the screenplay shifts and gives us stories that turn the "patient" into a person again and make us sit through the thriller till the end. Sushin Shyam's intelligent background score never tips into the maudlin though we witness so many deaths; instead, the music remains unobtrusive, sharpening the powerful performances on screen.
Virus has released at a time when a confirmed case of Nipah has been reported in the state. Far from inducing panic, the film reaffirms the fact that the state is ready to fight back - not just the government machinery but also its people.
Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the series/film. TNM Editorial is independent of any business relationship the organisation may have with producers or any other members of its cast or crew.