Like one of his contemporaries, Lijo Jose Pellissery, Aashiq Abu is a filmmaker who has never tried the same genre twice. Though not all his attempts have been able to hit the mark, his craft has improved with each passing year. With Virus, his follow-up to 2017’s Mayaanadhi, Aashiq has pulled off what has been until now thought impossible in Malayalam cinema—a survival thriller that’s on par with some of the best from international cinema.
Did you begin the film’s preparation process before or after Nipah was resolved?
It was before. We began collecting data through a doctor friend of Muhsin’s (co-writer) and other sources. We then went to see Shailaja teacher to seek additional assistance. We also sought help from several doctors, some of whom played a crucial role even though they were not in the limelight.
How did you approach the material?
The idea was to document reality but at the same time add a cinematic layer to it. The screenplay had to be in a format palatable for all kinds of audiences, including children, so as to enlighten them about the strength and brilliance of our scientists as well as the medical community.
Every actor in the film seems to have been assigned a specific task. How did you make those choices?
Those choices were made as per their real-life personalities. For example, we chose Kunchacko Boban to play the virologist (based on Dr. Arun Kumar) because, in addition to being popular with family audiences, he could present complex information that would usually go over everyone’s heads. It may look effortless on the screen and may not be immediately apparent, but Chackochan had put in a lot of effort to learn everything and present it convincingly.
Was it planned early on to make Indrajith the comic relief?
Not at all. It was a situational thing. Indrajith is a very interesting actor; he is so much fun to work with. Like Chackochan, he has the ability to put things across convincingly. He had to look like an ordinary, relatable person. The same goes for every other character in the film. They may not necessarily be the same way in real life but we have taken certain cinematic liberties to humanise all of them.
Though it was only little, you showed just the right amount of information to do that.
Yes, because the subtext is left to the audience to work out. Because watching a film, for me, should also be an exercise for the brain. It’s not so easy to develop a screenplay of this magnitude, with so many characters. In the end, it all boils down to the narrative. But the writers have managed to do a fantastic job.
Did the non-linear narration idea happen during the editing or writing stage?
Writing. We are dealing with a subject that cannot be glamourised visually. So, there needed to be some cinematic and dramatic moments so as to not make it look like a pure documentary. This being a film made in 2019, with a lot of people involved, there are some things that the audience not only looks forward to but also deserves. They hope to go through a cinematic experience, and in order to make that happen, we worked out some details in the pre-production stage.
One major plus about Virus is that it doesn’t look like a propaganda film.
Our society is a sensible one because they know what is what. So it wouldn’t make any sense to wave flags in my film. If I did that, I would be insulting the audience. I don’t believe that a political party needs a propaganda film from me to survive (laughs). Even if people want to see it that way, I wouldn’t mind. My left politics is very obvious in the film. But then it’s also about the politics of humanity, of love, and so on. There is no reason for me to change my political stand.
Just like Mayaanadhi, Virus doesn’t get too sentimental about its characters.
As we are dealing with all kinds of audiences, forcing emotions on them wouldn’t work for everyone. Today, most viewers have become visually literate and I’m making films for that kind of audience. They are smart enough to get why certain things had to be shown in a certain way. We knew that this film would trigger all sorts of discussions. The most important thing for us was to not make any mistakes with regard to the scientific facts gathered from the documents given to us by the health and state department officials.
Do you mean it’s okay to make the characters more cinematic as long as the facts are presented accurately?
See, it’s not possible to make any film look 100 per cent realistic. When it comes to cinema, ‘realism’ is a word that should be used with caution. Cinema is a make-believe art form: you’re creating an artificial reality, what we call cinematic art. And as artists, it’s our duty to engage our audiences through the cinematic language and grammar that most of us are familiar with.
A filmmaker can’t do the job of a journalist. We have to work hard to shape and present the characters in an interesting manner because we have to respect the time of people who spend a lot of money to watch these films. We can’t simply place a camera in an actual location every time and call it ‘realistic’. Even documentaries have a dramatised quality to them. If a documentary is running a music track in it, how can
you call it ‘realistic’?
Can you tell us about the use of sync sound in this film?
This being a dialogue-heavy film, we felt that dubbing the lines later wouldn’t be a good idea. The voice recording had to be perfect. Naturally, the sets were designed to accommodate that decision. And I have to say that Ajayan Adat has done a wonderful job with the sound design. For me, sync sound is the future. We are all exposed to world cinema, and we have to step up our game if we want to compete with international cinema.
Why did you use two cinematographers?
I wanted Rajeev Ravi to shoot this film because it deserved his level of talent. However, he was only able to shoot 75 per cent of the film because he was getting ready to direct Thuramukham. That’s why I called Shyju Khalid to shoot the rest.
That beautifully poignant final shot featuring Zakariya — who did that?
That was Shyju.
Can we expect a science fiction film from you anytime soon?
No. Doing Virus felt like doing a medical crash course (laughs). So I want to do something lighter and funny next. It’s a project with Soubin Shahir.