Kerala has had its fair share of disasters and tragedies. These have arrived in quick succession to each other, giving rise to maelstroms of destruction, suffering and strife, so much so that the very citizens of the state have developed some kind of herd immunity against the element of surprise that these calamities usually possess. Catastrophes are the real pathogens that have infected the state time and again, as if the universe is constantly conspiring to put its sobriquet, God's Own Country, to test. Sidelined and misrepresented (and often stereotyped) when it comes to several aspects that usually help places secure a prestigious spot for themselves in the Indian states' hall of fame, Kerala has chosen to define itself by the tribulations it has undergone, and how it has continued to rise in the face of misfortune. The true spirit of Kerala does not reside in its rich history, or its exotic geographical features, or its diverse places, festivals, art forms, religions, or people; it is found in the resilience and strength of every person who has their roots in this state that has witnessed (and expertly dealt with) devastating floods, a localised virus outbreak, and the recrudescence of such a nightmare on a similar and much larger scale in the wake of a global pandemic. It is in times like these, when the sanctity of the very name of God's Own Country has been threatened, that the real deities belonging to various political, religious and professional strata of society have united and stepped up to serve as beacons of light for everyone. In Aashiq Abu's 2019 medical thriller, Virus, these deities are our healthcare professionals, bureaucrats, and even the common people.
Prior to watching the film, I was sceptical of how successful this venture involving a massive ensemble cast (primarily composed of Malayalam New Wave actors) would be. Usually in such movies, a lot of time and effort is wasted in attempting to accommodate every single star, in making all the actors appear equally important, and in providing sufficient screen time for everybody, so that their involvement does not come across as too little (or a waste); thus, proper character development and organic storytelling are sacrificed in the process. There is a constant tussle between the stars who wish to dominate the screen, and this is detrimental to the plot in general. And for an important, informative storyline like Virus's, based on the 2018 Nipah virus outbreak in Kerala, the script is everything, and cannot be compromised by such issues. This is a depiction of real, tragic events, injected with substantial doses of creative liberty, attempting to shed light on how the state managed to contain a deadly disease, and emphasising the contributions of several unknown, faceless heroes who were dedicated to working towards achieving a favourable outcome. Therefore, the makers surprise us with their clever casting choices and excellent screenplay, which enables the actors to complement each other and bring out their individual strengths. There is no "superstar" in the film. Each member of the cast manages to emote extremely well, depicting a wide variety of emotions that would possess any common individual in such a grave situation. They do justice to the portrayal of the diverse population of Kerala that was affected – directly and indirectly – by the Nipah virus. Every single character and their daily lives, every single subplot, is important. It is futile to highlight any particular performance, because the film does not let that happen.
Being a medical thriller, the dialogues in Virus involve a lot of scientific jargon that is comprehensible and incomprehensible at the same time. After all, it is important to understand the gravity of such an outbreak, which, though skilfully contained within a relatively short period of time, was a first for Kerala. Despite the disease being localised, the entire state was on alert. The one month or so during which the virus cast a shadow upon Kerala seemed to stretch like an eternity, which justifies the movie's runtime of 152 minutes. Compared to larger epidemics as well as the present COVID-19 world we are living in, the eruption of Nipah cases in Kerala back then may appear like a small matter, but Virus does not portray the whole affair as something trivial. Neither does it exaggerate anything. The outbreak was a big event, and a scary one too. In fact, this film could be considered a microcosmic representation of our current situation, which is why it was a great watch (along with Contagion, which is on Netflix) during the initial months of the coronavirus pandemic.
The Nipah virus forced the state to finally concentrate on obtaining necessary medical resources for such times of crisis as well as on modernising its laboratories and hospitals. The frantic efforts to adapt to and embrace this intense wave of change have been showcased very well in the film. Focus had to be placed not just on the healthcare sector, but also on framing effective policies and reducing bureaucratic red tape to ensure the survival of the community. Virus captures those moments of gaining awareness, of realising the importance of a tiny microorganism that served the purpose of a wake-up call, as well as the tension and pressure involved when it comes to righting old wrongs. While the perspective of the medical community is shown adequately, Virus deserves brownie points for painting a realistic image of humanity during such tense times. The characters are not just distraught Keralites; they are human beings as well. They are relatable. They are people we have come across in several avenues of life. They are coloured in shades of white and grey, but never black, because each one of them has a story to tell us. They are people with families and diverse beliefs, hailing from various walks of life.
We chuckle at a joke pertaining to a Kadhalan number with three medical students in a car. We nod in agreement when the District Collector attempts to inspire and encourage a group of people to help, while respecting their viewpoints as well. Our hearts go out to a hospital attender, whose occupation leaves him defenceless in the face of stigma and health hazards. We shed a tear with an infected boar hunter who resigns himself to his grim fate in an extremely moving scene. There are several more characters, and we are provided with a glimpse of their quotidian activities, their wrongdoings, their acts of selflessness. And we never hate or love any one of them; those are emotions too strong to be felt for all the characters who are merely carrying out their duties or are victims of their circumstances. But we understand where they are coming from. We cannot blame their selfish acts (which are part of some very troubling scenes), or their reluctance to help, or their inability to prioritise when it comes to choosing between safety and personal beliefs. These are natural, inevitable; these are what make us human beings. Virus's success lies in the fact that despite there being too many characters and shifting locations/timelines that are sometimes difficult to keep track of, we are invested. We are invested in their struggles. We are invested in their tragedies and good fortunes. The usually uninvolved viewers are involved in this particular experience. This is what makes Virus a winner.
The music and cinematography play important roles in establishing an atmosphere of ominousness, death and horror. Truly, in some ways, Virus is also a horror movie of sorts. Rajeev Ravi's proficient camerawork is extremely commendable, and it is chilling in many ways. The hues of red and green have never felt so sinister on the big screen before; they almost appear to be menacing and alive in various frames, much like the deadly virus itself. The cinematography also accentuates the sense of urgency and the suffocating environment that the film possesses.
The characters almost come across as individuals attempting to survive in a post-apocalyptic landscape. The hunt for the source of the virus (Virus also works as an investigative thriller) and the "index patient" is reminiscent of zombie thrillers in which protagonists usually try to escape the spread of a mysterious illness and are on the lookout for a cure that can be obtained on identifying the "Patient Zero". In scenes where the infected exhibit textbook symptoms and collapse, we almost expect them to creepily rise again as bizarre entities. Sushin Shyam's unsettling background score can be best described as "virus-like". It befits the central plot and is the perfect companion for the excellent cinematography. The beauty of Virus lies in how it manages to balance elements of horror with humane themes of love and compassion.
As a Malayali born and brought up in Kolkata, I never felt like I truly belonged to either of the states that I have spent all these years in. Yet, I do remember the anxious phone calls, the frequent checking of news updates regarding the outbreak, the many WhatsApp messages flooding our phones, which were all part of our daily routine during the time period when the spread of the virus had become official. There were a lot of emotions involved, and everybody was concerned about distant relatives living close to the affected areas. These were moments when I truly felt the unity and the oneness, along with the pride of being part of a brave community.
In Virus, there is grief – a lot of grief. There is fear. There is helplessness. There is selfishness. There is guilt. There is regret. But above everything there exist empathy and love, the most potent vaccines that science can never take credit for. It is by spreading love that we can curb the bigger diseases of hatred and discrimination, which is itself a big step forward when it comes to saving thousands, maybe millions, of people in times of crisis. And as a human being, I could not wish for anything better.