Penned by trio of screenwriters (Muhsin Parari, Sharfu & Suhas), Aashiq Abu’s Virus (2019) is a star-studded medical thriller that approaches the threat of a deadly epidemic disease from interestingly different perspectives, smartly avoiding the typical dramatics. Virus is based on May 2018 Kerala Nipah virus outbreak (in Kozhikode and Malappuram districts), which claimed 17 lives and the virus’ origin was traced to the fruit bats in the area. The narrative closely follows the painful losses while also acknowledging the sacrifice, compassion, professional integrity and intellect of the disparate set of individuals that proved to be crucial in containing the epidemic. Striking the right emotional chords and clinically observing the machinations of bureaucratic processes is not an easy task. But director Aashiq Abu does a commendable job, keeping our attention focused on the real, collective heroes adorned with a sense of dogged professionalism.
Being an ensemble piece, Virus takes time setting its characters and atmosphere. A junior doctor of Kozhikode named Abid Rahman (Sreenath Bhasi) starts his shift; he and his colleagues are all involved in bringing some order to the chaos of emergency unit. A stretcher brings in an extremely agitated and delirious woman named Akhila (Rima Kallingal) who being a nurse herself insists she tested negative for dengue fever and that she’s afflicted by something more dangerous. Abid reassures her and gives her the proper medical attention. Soon patients with similar symptoms turn up in Kozhikode hospitals, suddenly turning the situation into a full-blown emergency. Kozhikode District Collector Paul Abraham (Tovino Thomas) and Kerala Health Minister Prameela (Revathi) gather health officials and hospital orderlies to figure out the methods to curb the spread of disease, and also to figure out the virus’ source.
The doctors assert that the patients have contracted Nipah, for which there’s neither vaccination nor treatment, and the fatality rate is nearly 75 percent. The government quickly jumps into action asking the people to remain in the confines of their home and quarantining the reported patients. Dr. Suresh (Kunchacko Boban) and Dr. Annu (Parvathy) separately conduct their inquiries to trace down the ‘index’ patient Zakariya and the possible ways the spread of the virus occurred. Meanwhile, conspiracies theories emerge as the paranoia surrounding viral outbreak make some officials to think of weaponized attack or bio-terrorism. And through all this thrilling yet incredibly realistic elements, director Abu also poignantly looks at the plight of the patients and their loved ones.
Virus deals with a fresh and intriguing subject, not previously covered in Indian cinema. It’s depiction of an emergency medical crisis (with strong grounding in real science and true events) is deeply unsettling and frightful at times. Wolfgang Peterson’s Outbreak (1995) and Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion (2011) have previously worked with such vast canvas, tracking down a similar primitive and more complex antagonist. Apart from the loud background score and few redundant subplots, ‘Virus’ is made with meticulous precision. In movies with such a large ensemble cast and one where such a large, intricate story is detailed, individual characters would get lost and fail to create considerable emotional impact although the viewer’s intellect would be consistently engaged. Here, the writers have done a brilliant job, instilling more depth to certain characters while also ratcheting up the tensions. Characters like Anjali (Darshana Rajendran)-Vishnu (Asif Ali) and Abid-Sara (Madonna Sebastian) come across as somewhat one-dimensional even though we feel for the tragedies they encounter.
The social aspects of the outbreak are well addressed through the character of Babu (Joju George), an attendant at the govt. medical hospital who protests against the management for not making him a permanent employee. He agrees to his services in the quarantine ward in exchange of a promise for permanent job. The risks he took alongside the selfless ambulance drivers and sanitary workers are given due attention as much as the tiring and round-the-clock work done at the bureaucratic levels. Abu and his writers’ ability to conjure poignant yet nuanced character moments could be seen when a relieved Babu goes to shop to buy his son a new backpack; or when Akhila’s husband dejectedly looks at the fumes emerging from the crematorium (and also in the memorable, heart-wrenching epilogue). Abu deftly manages the multiple story lines and keeps it just engaging enough on a human level without relying much on melodrama. Even the final speech delivered by the health minister doesn’t go for political chest-thumping, but simply conveys the message of compassion and caring in the face of incomprehensible maladies.