The director of Virus, Aashiq Abu, certainly would not have intended his tale of Kerala’s conquest of the Nipah virus in 2018 to be released in the same week as the reappearance of the threat.
As it is, real events loom over the cinematic. The meticulous way in which the state fought back, portrayed on screen by a bevy of Malayalam cinema’s finest actors, is seeing an encore out in the real world. And by the end, when the fight was won, the applause was muted, thoughtful, in the knowledge that it has to be fought again.
A Tribute to Everyday Heroes
Babu, played by an excellent Joju George, is a mortuary worker at the Kozhikode Medical College who is first shown protesting the insecurity of his contractual position. However, when fear of the virus meant there was no one to dispose of the bodies, he steps up. “This is where people like me come to get treatment,” he says, referring to the public hospital.
Annu, played by Parvathy, is an ordinary health worker who takes up the puzzle of piecing together exactly how the infection spread from one person to another, without which the epidemic cannot be stopped.
An ambulance driver wants to be “paid on the spot” but also wants the government to take care of his wife and children if something happens to him.
These are ordinary people, everyday heroes, who stepped up and did their jobs.
None more so than nurse Akhila (Rima Kallingal). She is playing the part of nurse Lini Puthussery, who tragically died on 21 May 2018 because of the Nipah infection she contracted from her patient.
"I don't think I will be able to see you again. Sorry. Please raise our children well," she had written from her deathbed to her husband who was abroad.
Yes, Lini is a hero, but she was simply doing her job. This makes others in her profession heroes too.
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The Kerala government had, in April 2018, raised the minimum wage of nurses to Rs 20,000. The nurses had to fight for it, the order came after months of protests, and the hike may not be enough.
However, elsewhere in the country, nurses continue to be paid starvation wages, exploited for long hours by private hospitals, which will charge almost their monthly salary for a CT scan.
Virus’ runtime of 152 minutes maybe a little longer than necessary. The portrayal of how 2,847 people were quarantined and the dissection of possibilities of how the disease may have spread from one person to other is, excusably, hard to follow at times.
However, just when the film needs it, Virus is lifted up by a superlative performance by Soubin Shahir, who plays Unnikrishnan, a Nipah patient. He steals every scene, infuses it with so much raw emotion and sears it into the brains of those watching.
Grief & Guilt
The state administration is represented by Tovino Thomas who plays the district collector, Poornima who plays the district medical medical officer, and Revathy who plays the health minister.
All of them give understated performances, often acting as facilitators to the above-mentioned working class heroes. The writers – Muhsin Parari, Sharfu and Suhas – have resisted the temptation to make them larger-than-life. They do not have punch dialogues, and do not even raise their voice, even once.
In real life, the Nipah virus was identified in the second patient itself by the Pune Virology Institute. The doctors treating him had sent the samples to the institute after realising they were dealing with something out of the ordinary. The doctors had then called the diagnosis "serendipitous".
In reel life, Kunchacko Boban, from the Pune institute, makes the diagnosis and then travels to Kerala to find the source. His interactions with the family of Zakariya, the index patient in medical terms, provide some of the most touching moments in the film.
Being the first to contract the virus, Zakariya had passed it on to his sister and his father. All three of them lost their lives. Even in their unbearable grief, the family is beset with guilt. Zakariya’s brother wants to meet nurse Akhila's family. "If they have something to say to us, let them," he says.
A second outbreak of the virus was confirmed in the state on 4 June, this time in Ernakulam district. Fingers crossed, the fight against it looks to be even more successful than the first. Days after the virus was confirmed, a second case is yet to be reported, and over 300 people are under observation.
In a country where infants die due to lack of oxygen, this perhaps is the biggest lesson from the film. When governments invest in health and education, they are investing in the people. And if you invest in the people, they will look after each other.
And let us, please, pay the nurses more.
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