Nipping the Nipah

Published: Jun 16, 2019, 05:07 IST | Meenakshi Shedde

It opens in the busy casualty ward of a hospital, amidst multiple emergencies, including patients with symptoms that are later diagnosed as the Nipah virus

Nipping the Nipah
Illustration/Uday Mohite

Meenakshi SheddeAashiq Abu's Virus (Malayalam) is a long-awaited film for fans of the superb director. His acclaimed films include Salt 'n' Pepper, 22 Female Kottayam, 5 Sundarikal (anthology film), Rani Padmini and Mayaanadhi.

Virus is a medical thriller based on real-life events surrounding the Nipah virus outbreak in Kerala last May, that claimed at least 17 lives, but infected many more. The film has all the elements of an explosive thriller — a deadly, unknown enemy, detective work to trace the origin and spread of the virus, the race to save lives, multiple life-and-death stories. Yet, what is extraordinary is that the film calmly leaches out all the melodrama and fast-cuts approach, in favour of an empathetic, documentary feel. This unobtrusive approach works wonderfully, allowing us to enter the lives of multiple characters, and feel for them. Produced by Aashiq Abu and Rima Kallingal's OPM, the film boasts a massive star cast, including Parvathy, Revathy, Tovino Thomas, Kunchako Boban, Rima Kallingal, Soubin Shahir, Sreenath Bhasi, Asif Ali, Indrans, Indrajith Sukumaran, Rahman and more.

It opens in the busy casualty ward of a hospital, amidst multiple emergencies, including patients with symptoms that are later diagnosed as the Nipah virus. The medical authorities must admit that there is no treatment and no vaccination. The screenplay by Muhsin Parari (who wrote dialogues for the delightful Sudani from Nigeria), Sharfu and Suhas, is brilliant. The film cuts between the emotional individual battles, to the larger war waged by the medical authorities, struggling to contain the outbreak. A devoted nurse asks, "How can I not tend to the sick?" before succumbing to the disease herself. A mother is guilty that her son has infected everyone. The authorities face multiple challenges. Trying to trace the first 'index patient' and stop the virus spreading. The district collector tactfully persuades attendants who are too scared to report for duty, to care for the living and the dead. And central government authorities threaten to "take over," with conspiracy theories of bio-terrorism. Though the patients include Hindus and Muslims, the script underlines how minorities are immediately suspect. The script fleshes out characters in haiku strokes — they play football, deal with fake currency, plan to marry, have to cremate the infected dead. And it leavens the crisis with gentle humour.

The ensemble acting is excellent. All the top stars play small but key roles; no one makes their star presence felt. Parvathy, a hospital staffer, does brilliant sleuthing, doing interviews, investigating scores of patient records and CCTV footage, to track how the virus spread. What a coup, to have a woman detective solve this deadly case, rather than a man. That too, an ordinary woman in a salwar kameez, no cool magnifying glass, cigar or deerstalker, just quiet brain power.

Rajeev Ravi's cinematography, along with Shyju Khalid's, keeps you in the heart of the action, and their eerie, red-and-green lit corridors suggest a Stalker-like 'Zone', a limbo between life and death. Saiju Sreedharan's editing keeps you engaged despite the steady pace, and is complex: the multiple characters and timelines are occasionally confusing: but this may be because when I saw it at MovieTime Malad, they stupidly refused to play the English sub-titled version they already had, so I had a friend translate. Sushin Shyam's music is perfectly discreet.

The film, as well as the coda at the end, is moving, highlighting ordinary heroes, and underlining how it was compassion, and taking care of everyone, that unintentionally helped the virus spread — and contain it as well.

Meenakshi Shedde is India and South Asia Delegate to the Berlin International Film Festival, National Award-winning critic, curator to festivals worldwide and journalist. She can be reached on meenakshishedde@gmail.com

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