Aashiq Abu follows Mayaanadhi with another winner. Virus is a medical thriller that brings to mind the all-star disaster movies from Hollywood. If the threat was fire in The Towering Inferno and a tidal wave in The Poseidon Adventure, it's the Nipah virus here—I was reminded of Steven Soderbergh's Contagion (2011), another all-star disaster movie about the attempt to identify and contain the source of a mysterious sickness. Virus also functions as a "procedural" where "detectives" track down a serial killer, or as a post-apocalyptic drama about the race to survive. But despite these broad genre frameworks, the film transcends genre and becomes a very human story. It doesn't exploit the material for cheap sentiment or easy thrills. There's remarkably no hysteria —not when terrified citizens block the passage of an ambulance, not when a grieving man gazes at a chimney emitting smoke from his wife's cremated body (he couldn't be inside, lest he get infected, too), not even when bioterrorism is brought in as a plot point. Sushin Shyam's score, with just enough drama, is enough (though I wonder if it's time our music directors started thinking beyond violins and cellos to evoke emotion).
When the doctors realise something is wrong, it's just another routine day in a crowded casualty ward. Rajeev Ravi and Shyju Khalid's magnificent camerawork deposits us in the midst of chaos. (At the other extreme, later, it evokes the icy stillness that descends on Kerala and makes God's Own Country feel like a dystopian landscape.) Patients are admitted with very everyday issues: a stroke, a severed tendon. Suddenly, there's someone exhibiting rabies-like symptoms. The writing (Muhsin Parari, Sharfu, Suhas) and editing (Saiju Sreedharan) are spectacular. As we hear a doctor talking about this man's symptoms, we cut to flashback-like vignettes—but instead of seeing this man, we see a woman exhibiting similar symptoms. What a brilliantly economical way to show how the disease is spreading! There's no vaccine, no treatment protocol. All they can do is set up a control room and start investigating. Incidentally, no one prays. This is a truly scientific movie.
If I keep using impersonal modes of address like "a doctor" or "they", it's partly because Virus is not about any single hero/heroine (though Parvathy, with a brilliantly minimalistic performance as Dr Annu, comes close). It's a collective effort. There's the Kozhikode District collector Paul V Abraham (Tovino Thomas), who's mindful of how much panic the situation can cause. He doesn't want to use the police to defuse a tense situation, and when it comes to hospital volunteers, he simply says: Those willing to help, write down your name and phone number. The others just write down 'no'. Even here, he doesn't want to use force. This is what screenwriting is about: character is revealed through action. Then there's Health Minister CK Prameela (Revathy), Dr. Salim (Rahman), Dr. Suresh Rajan (Kunchacko Boban) and Dr. Baburaj (Indrajith Sukumaran), who talks about his impending divorce while a funeral pyre crackles at a distance.
None of these characters is unduly emphasised, and yet, we come away feeling we know them. We know Sister Akhila (Rima Kallingal) misses her husband in Dubai. We know the "Index Patient" Zakariya (Zakariya Mohammed) is religious. We know that Vishnu (Asif Ali) and Anjali (Darshana Rajendran) — she's now a patient — were thinking about a baby. (Some of these reveals are presented as quick-cut flashbacks.) We know Dr Abid (Sreenath Bhasi) feels guilty about possibly infecting Dr. Sara (Madonna Sebastian) — that's possibly why he allows Vishnu to enter Anjali's chamber. He knows what a risk this is. He also knows what it is to keep watch over a loved one who's suffering. It's a dash of perfectly realised melodrama. Even as minor a character as the hospital attender Babu (Joju George) gets an arc. His family is ostracised. He's stuck beside piles of dangerous-looking medical waste. And there's his bag, whose strap has snapped. At the end, Virus takes a few seconds to show Babu shopping for a new bag. It's the micro-detail that touched me the most. The world has been saved. But life still has to go on, a new bag still has to be bought.
At two-and-half hours, Virus is a long-ish film, but it needs (and earns) its running time. It has the expansiveness of good non-fiction. Instead of zooming into just the problem, it zooms out to the world outside. We see a world filled with counterfeiters, footballers, boar hunters, hospital employees who haven't been paid in months, big-hearted industrialists who use personal planes to drop off medical supplies. (Soubin Shahir and Dileesh Pothan are among the actors whose characters give us a glimpse of the bigger picture, outside the hospital.) Virus is made with breathtaking confidence. Even amidst the life-and-death subject matter, it doesn't shy away from laugh-out-loud jokes. (I'm still grinning thinking about the bit woven around a Kadhalan number.) There's an enormous amount of dignity in the narration. No one wears makeup. The actors (uniformly good) seem as committed as those doctors and nurses were. We know the virus will be quelled, but instead of triumphant high-fives, we get small smiles, a small hug, and a coda that's at once compassionate and chilling. You could be doing the kindest thing, but Nature can be really cruel.