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Virus (dir. Aashiq Abu, 2019)

This post first appeared on Totally Filmi on June 11, 2020.

As a fan of Malayalam cinema, I try to follow the news from Kerala so I can learn as much as I can, ongoing research, if you will, to try to understand the films better.  In 2018, there was an outbreak of Nipah virus in the south Indian state – if you’re not familiar with it (I know I wasn’t), it’s a viral infection that can produce symptoms that range from things like fever, cough, shortness of breath, and which can be complicated by things like encephalitis and coma.  Symptoms begin to appear anywhere from five to fourteen days after exposure to the virus, and it can be transmitted from animals to humans (and the other way around), as well as to humans through exposure to things like fruits that have been contaminated by infected animals – most particularly by fruit bats.  The virus was first detected in Malayasia in 1999, and subsequently in Bangladesh and in India.  There is no specific drug treatment for the Nipah virus, nor is there a vaccine, and currently preventative measures (reducing exposure, social distancing, hand washing) are the only ways to deal with it – all of which sounds eerily familiar now that we’re dealing with Covid-19 and all of its unknowns.

There were nineteen confirmed cases of the virus in the 2018 outbreak, of which seventeen died – but it’s widely acknowledged that things could have been much worse.  That they weren’t is due to the rapid response and collaboration by a number of agencies in detecting the nature of the virus, tracing contacts, and implementing control and containment measures to prevent further spread. 

It’s this story that director Aashiq Abu decided to tell in his meticulously researched and crafted film Virus.  In a small bit of irony, just a few days before the film’s release (on June 7th, 2019), came the news that a student was confirmed to be ill with Nipah virus, and I wondered if Abu would put a hold on his film’s release.  He didn’t, and when I saw the film, I could see why:  the film plays out like a serious medical investigative thriller, detailing the responses to the 2018 outbreak without resorting to emotional manipulation or scare-mongering.  It’s a testament to the many people and organizations that worked together to solve the “mystery” of Nipah virus, and who were effective in limiting the consequences of the outbreak.

In Abu’s film, we are transported to the Kozhikode and Malappuram districts of Kerala, where the outbreak began, and we follow the state’s health minister CK Prameela (Revathy) – a character modeled on Kerala’s current state health minister KK Shailaja – as she puts together a team of people to try to trace the origins of the virus outbreak, and, more importantly, to put a halt to the spread. 

The outbreak begins with the index patient, Zakariya (Zakariya Mohammed), who arrives at the Government Medical College presenting symptoms of a severe respiratory illness.  As we will learn, Zakariya infects eighteen more patients, including the nurse who tends to him, Akhila (Rima Kallingal, playing another character modeled on the real life nurse, Lini Puthussery, whose letter to her husband is echoed in the one that Akhila writes to her husband before her death).  Dr. Salim (Rahman), a doctor at Baby Hospital, rules out a number of possible causes for Zakariya’s illness, but test results soon confirm what he has been suspecting – that Zakariya has somehow managed to contract Nipah virus.

CK Prameela sets up her team, who include medical doctors (the extensive cast includes actors such as Indrajith, Poornima Indrajith, Kunchacko Boban, Parvathy Thirovothu, Sreenath Bhasi), and politicians, such as the district collector (Tovino Thomas) – a kind of administrative position in the local government – as well as the various people who come into contact with Zakariya and who become ill (again, a steller cast including Indrans, Asif Ali, Madonna Sebastian, and Soubin Shahir).  Together they must investigate the source of the illness, track down those who were in contact with the index patient, inform the public, deal with conspiracy theories, and ensure that the illness doesn’t spread to a wider population. 


One of the things that stands out for me is how Aashiq Abu manages to balance this very highly technical and specific medical event, showing us the investigation of routes of transmission and contact tracing, with the very personal stories of the individuals involved, as well as some distinct community concerns.  Zakariya is Muslim, and this is a community that prefers burials to cremation — but the team is using the WHO protocol’s for Ebola virus, which would normally require them to cremate the body in order to prevent any possible transmission.  In order to balance these two needs, they turn to experts in deep burials, which had been used in Africa, relying on expert information to ensure that the needs of one community can be in alignment with the needs of the whole population.  Zakariya’s mother, Jameela (Savithri Sreedharan) is bereft at the thought of people being angry at her son.  Nurse Akhila, arriving at the hospital in a severe state, still manages to convey important information to the medical staff attending to her, and begs to be intubated so she can be put on a ventilator, all the while being concerned for her own child.  Babu (Joju George) is a hospital attendant with a precarious contract, and he agrees to help Dr. Baburaj (Indrajith) form a team to deal with the bodies of the dead patients, in the hopes that this will lead to a permanent contract for him – but it requires him to remain isolated from his family, who are shunned by the local shop for fear that they will pass on the virus.

I’m constantly amazed at how much Aashiq Abu manages to pack into his film, without any of it feeling stilted or forced or without any information overload.  I’m fascinated by doctors Suresh Rajan (Kunchacko Boban) and Annu (Parvathy) and their investigation of the possible sources of the outbreak (for the former) and contract tracing (for the latter) to try to determine how the index patient managed to contract the virus, and who he spread it to – there’s a bit of tension in the film as the team learns they need to be able to rule out any possibility that the outbreak might be the result of some kind of terrorist bio-attack, a possibility that is given weight when there are two clusters of infected patients that they cannot seem to connect.  Most of all, as a fan both of Malayalam cinema as a whole, and of director Aashiq Abu since his first film (Daddy Cool, with the Megastar of Malayalam cinema, Mammootty), I am delighted by this incredible extended cast that he brought together for this film – some of these actors are major stars in their own right, and all of them agreed to do this film – which involved all of them in much smaller roles than they might normally command —  because they could see a greater purpose in sharing this story.

So, after watching the film, and seeing everything that was done to contain the Nipah virus, I imagine you’re wondering how Kerala is doing in terms of dealing with Covid-19? It should come as no surprise that the state’s response to the pandemic has been praised both within India and abroad.  The state’s first three cases were identified at the end of January – all of them were medical students studying in Wuhan, China, the centre of the pandemic outbreak.  The state put its contact tracing machinery in motion and placed over 3000 people (who had come into contact with the students) into quarantine.  That they could respond so quickly was due in part to experience with Nipah virus, and in part to the state’s political system.  Kerala’s brand of socialism/communism has fought over the years for the rights of Keralites, and the state has the highest literacy rate in India.  The communist party in Kerala has always worked as part of the democratic system, but it has always worked for the welfare and well-being of the state, and that shows in the response to crises like Nipah and Covid-19.  Kerala’s Chief Minister, Pinarayi Vijayan, has emphasized that lock-down measures need to be supplemented with testing, contact tracing, isolation/quarantine, as well as government support to ensure food and economic security (essentially following the World Health Organization’s model of “test, trace, isolate, support”).  Kerala’s Health Minister KK Shailaja (known as “Shailaja Teacher” as a reminder of her previous role as a science teacher) began planning the state’s response in January, when she was informed that it was sure that Covid-19 would reach the state, setting up the WHO protocols to fight the pandemic, and making sure that coordination and consultation with the community and community leaders was part of the preparations and response.  The “Break the Chain” campaign was initiated to educate the population about the importance of handwashing, hand sanitizing, social distancing and masks to, as the slogan says “break the chain” of transmission.  The Kerala police created a series of informative and entertaining videos, and many of Malayalam cinema’s stars (including much of the cast of the film Virus) shared information about the campaign with their fans.  Kerala’s response to Covid-19 has been exemplary, and Aashiq Abu’s film gives us a glimpse into how that was done.  More than that, it shows that this kind of considered, timely response *does* make a difference when dealing with a virus for which there is no treatment or vaccine – more importantly, it gives hope in what seems like a hopeless situation, and it shows Malayalees that they can be justifiably proud  of their state and how it weathers a crisis such as this. 

Virus is currently available to watch (with English subtitles) on Amazon Prime.

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