Virus and the art of Medical Thrillers | Review

Even as Greta Thunberg, a 15-year-old Environmental Activist, warns us about our foreboding future – “But I don’t want your hope, I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic, I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act, I want you to act as if you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if the house was on fire, because it is.” – nature is already sending us signals that it has had enough. No other species in the world has transformed its habitat to its benefit as we have. And now we are at the tipping-point when the great, self-correcting mechanism of nature would be triggered. Climate change is very real and we do see its manifestation in the very tangible changes that it brings, but it would be naïve for us to settle comfortably into the idea that this is the only way that we are going to be “judged”. Nature is devoid of emotion, and it would always find the fastest way to course-correct itself, because survival, as Darwin says, is paramount. And for that, many a times it attacks at the very root of the problem.

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Image Credits – Contagion

Since recorded history, mankind has seen over ten great epidemics that have pushed us to the very brink of mass extinction. Six hundred years ago, the Bubonic Plague, also known as The Black Death was the first true pandemic of its kind that wiped out half the populations of Asia and Europe. And all without an Infinity Gauntlet. A little closer to home, in the early 20th century, The Great Influenza Epidemic was responsible for the deaths of 50 – 100 million people. What made it worse than it probably would have was the fact that the disease struck smack in the middle of World War I when armies where invading each other’s countries in Europe, thus helping the virus spread along a larger population than it would have on its own. Although mankind was won several wars with viruses like Smallpox and Polio, and are even at the verge of curing AIDS if recent reports are to be believed, scientists claim that there may still be a strain of “supervirus” buried underneath the polar ice-caps that may come out of cryo-state once the ice starts melting. Since these organisms would never have interacted with humanity before, we would have no way of fighting them.

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Also read: Where is the Bubonic Plague Today ?

Director Aashiq Abu’s one-of-a-kind medical thriller Virus revolves around the Nipah epidemic that struck Kerala in July of 2018 (as per the report by WHO). Even though Nipah is not a new phenomenon and has been identified in other countries, there is no known vaccine or cure that can counteract its effects. The virus spreads far too easily between animals and humans, and also among humans through direct contact, bodily fluids or even tiny particles projected through a harmless sneeze. With a fatality rate between 40% to 75%, this makes the virus a highly effective and deadly killer! We have had some very realistic films on the subject such as Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion (2011) that was a very authentic portrayal of a pandemic told in hyperlink cinema style – with multiple characters and parallel storylines told through each of their perspectives, even though it was not a dramatization of a real event. Abu’s film also takes on a similar style where he narrates the sequence of events through the eyes of various characters who are brought together through Nipah.

Bollywood filmmaker Suresh Triveni on Virus
Image Credits – Virus (2019)

Kunchako Boban is Dr. Suresh Rajan, a Virologist who is instrumental in creating the system that eventually helps trace them back to the index patient – the individual who started the spread. The character takes inspiration from Dr. G. Arunkumar who established the Diagnostic Virology Unit in the Dept. of Microbiology at Manipal University. Tovino Thomas is the Kozhikode District Collector Paul Abraham (based on UV Jose) who became the bureaucratic strong-arm that provide the doctors with the resources so that they could take a stand against the deadly virus. Rahman is Dr. Salim, an experienced Doctor who first makes a guess that it could be Nipah. Besides them, we have a host of doctors like Sreenath Bhasi who plays Dr. Abid, one of the few medics who contracts the virus. Parvathy Thorivothu plays Dr. Annu, a mild-mannered but tenacious doctor who helps find the missing link to the index patient through unconventional investigative techniques. Then we have the affected like Soubin Shahir who plays Unnikrishnan, whose testimony leads the doctors to the index patient. Both Bhasi and Shahir were also seen together in Madhu Narayanan’s Kumbalangi Nights (2019). We also have the yesteryear actor Revathi as the Health Minister who is quick to understand the gravity of the situation and provides political leverage to the doctors.

Aashiq Abu’s story-telling strength lies in the fact that he keeps his reins girdled, not allowing the film to fall prey to over-dramatization. The narrative is kept very realistic providing a spotlight on the dire conditions doctors have to work in in an average Indian hospital where the sheer volume of patients requires them to diagnose and treat in a far shorter time than should be warranted.

Aashiq Abu’s story-telling strength lies in the fact that he keeps his reins girdled, not allowing the film to fall prey to over-dramatization. The narrative is kept very realistic providing a spotlight on the dire conditions doctors have to work in in an average Indian hospital where the sheer volume of patients requires them to diagnose and treat in a far shorter time than should be warranted. In such taxing work conditions, a potential epidemic only adds to the peril especially when the symptoms look similar to viral flu. Virus gives us several sequences where the doctors and virologists sit together, meticulously brainstorming to identify the individuals who might have been directly or indirectly exposed to Nipah. This operation is so mind-bogglingly complex that you get to appreciate as an audience what it would have taken to stitch the Nipah-spread together, even when pressure mounted on them with public panic and political push to declare the epidemic as a weaponized attack just so that the government to brush off any blame to its efficacy. The film also brings a very human side of things as the lives of ordinary people are affected – a union worker who, despite the scare, volunteers himself to help the doctors; members of a small community who allow dead bodies to be deep-buried on their sacred ground, all the while praying for their families; a husband who laments his beloved wife’s death. More than anything else how people from every facet of society come together to fight the disease.

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Virus has opened up a whole new genre in Indian cinema through its meticulous execution of a medical drama. Such bold, creative, film-making restores our faith in good story-telling and how even docudramas could make for captivating thrillers. If not anything else, Virus is India’s answer to Craig Mazin’s Chernobyl.

Now streaming on Amazon Prime Video India

gobblscore: 8/10


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