The letter, written by Akhila, a nurse, to her husband, Sandeep, as she lies dying on a hospital bed in the Malayalam film Virus, is read in Akhila’s voice as her body is wrapped in a white sheet and placed in an electric crematorium.
The poignant note is a tweaked version of the original written by Lini Puthussery, the duty nurse who tended to the first few Nipah virus patients during an outbreak in Kerala last year and succumbed to fatal encephalitis a few days later.
Shortly on the heels of Delhi Crime, a slick Netflix series inspired by the police team that cracked the December 2012 gang rape case, comes director Aashiq Abu’s gripping medical thriller about how the Kerala government tackled a public health emergency in 2018. The film released days after a fresh Nipah case was reported in Kerala.
Both the film and the series hold the viewer’s attention even though they are based on recent events that were reported widely and linger in our memory. Unlike the series that whitewashes the Capital’s police force, Abu’s film is not a hagiography of the team that contained the outbreak.
“It was like a crash course in virology," Abu says over the phone. He met health officials, the families of victims, nurses and the cleaning staff at Kozhikode’s Government Medical College in the course of filming the movie. Scriptwriters parked themselves in Kozhikode for three months, speaking to everyone involved.
Abu says he was struck by the frenzy of the casualty department; he captures the steady flood of gory emergency cases that pass through here every day at the start of the film. “It’s very busy, like a bus stand…the watchmen blow whistles to move people along. Imagine what happens when someone contagious gets into this kind of crowd," he says.
For a film that by definition can’t offer you too many surprises, Virus still manages to overwhelm you with the depiction of little acts of kindness sprinkled through the plot. How do you deal with parents who want you to respect their religious sentiments and bury their infected son instead of cremating him? A health officer doubles up as a pall-bearer when hospital staff are scared; a district collector declines to use the police force to intimidate scared crematorium workers who refuse to cremate the body of a patient; a doctor weeps when Akhila dies. He’s the one who reassured her when she was wheeled in to casualty. “We were very sure compassion would be the crux of the movie," says Abu. An act of kindness even sets off the chain of events depicted in the film.
Virus is a portrait of an India that has all but disappeared in mainstream depictions. It showcases a government interested in curbing the spread of fake news and one whose representatives prefer to avoid all conjecture and hold their comments until all the facts are clear and all the test results are out. Here, the importance of scientific inquiry always takes precedence over conspiracy theories, the media has easy access to the latest updates and religious identity doesn’t take precedence over all else. There are no social media wars centred around the patriotism of the index patient Zakariya (played by Zakariya Mohammed, director of last year’s critically acclaimed Malayalam film Sudani From Nigeria). You feel the pain of his cherubic mother when she asks sadly, “Will everyone hate my boy?"
In Virus, credit is shared by all and no one politician takes centre stage—Revathy, as the state’s health minister, is calm, reassuring and encouraging of her team at all times. The teamwork spills beyond the script into the film’s starry ensemble cast. At least a dozen well-established Malayalam cinema actors play small but important roles, uniting to make the film more impactful. Abu says these actors didn’t require much persuasion: “Everyone was inspired, they knew we were documenting something important that happened in our state and that it was a socially responsible movie."
An added bonus? Many of the actresses in this film are part of the Kerala-based Women in Cinema Collective (WCC) and have been speaking up against their colleague Dileep, accused of abducting and assaulting an actress.
Like all good contagion films, Virus is a queasy cocktail of medical jargon and bodily fluids. By Day15 of the outbreak, there are seven patients in two Kerala hospitals. An impeccably maintained PWD guest house doubles up as a control room, and, as the patient count increases steadily, the team must divvy up nearly 3,000 people into four categories: those who had direct contact with Nipah patients, those who touched their belongings, those who travelled with them, and those who shared spaces with the virus-affected.
“The only virus that can cause encephalitis in a family cluster is Nipah. With other encephalitis viruses like herpes or Japanese encephalitis virus, you don’t see family clusters," G. Arunkumar, head of the Manipal Centre of Virus Research, told the American Society for Microbiology last year. The film drew from Arunkumar’s academic paper on the outbreak and the real-life work of a postgraduate student of community medicine, Seethu Thampi, to show how the journey of the virus is chronicled meticulously in order to stop its spread. Thampi’s on-screen persona is essayed by Parvathy, who turns amateur sleuth to establish the links between all those infected.
And after every good contagion film, as you exit the movie hall, you can’t help but think that the confined, crowded space you just spent 2 hours in is as good a place as any to catch a deadly virus.
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