A Sign of the Times – Virus Mairus

Fikri Jermadi washes his hands, puts on his mask and dissects Gogularaajan Rajendran’s Kuman Pictures Challenge winner.

It says a lot that while there’s a global pandemic going on out there on an unprecedented level, there’s plenty of viral action going on inside our smartphones as well. Chief amongst these would have been all sorts of messages and memes delivered through messaging apps like WhatsApp; though there is nothing scientific to back me up, I think the PDF file outlining the Malaysian government’s initial announcement of the movement control order (MCO) stands a chance of being the most shared file in the nation’s history.

I do not doubt that these forms of communication help maintain personal and professional relationships. I also believe that they are effective in enhancing all sorts of confirmation biases. More specifically, images of people hoarding food items and toilet rolls were readily shared. One of these is of an Indian man, carting a trolley full of alcoholic drinks. I can’t quite verify the accuracy (it may have been taken at another time), but having received at least three copies of the same image, it’s popularity is easier to measure.

Though meant as a form of humour, it is also a little unsettling. Funny when contrasted to others who wipe the shelves clean of hand sanitisers? Perhaps. Racist and stereotypical? Almost certainly. Not helpful in a Malaysian context, where the Indian community have already been saddled with such negative generalisations of unruly behaviour linked to alcoholism to begin with? No question. There’s more where this comes from, but this is the context in which I watched ‘Virus Mairus’.

Directed by Gogularaajan Rajendran, it tells the story of Neelakandan (Rajendran Perumal), a man stuck indoors at the height of the MCO period. The problem is, he likes his alcohol, and he has run out of supply. Temptation could perhaps be resisted for a night, but when a potential solution presents itself, things get a little trickier. Problem is, he would have to sneak out his building without detection from both the police and his wife (Puspavathy Arumugam). As she falls asleep, it provides Neelakandan with his opportunity.

Of course, that is not a chance without its challenges. The police force, for instance, play a key role here; although unseen, they remain a menacing authority all the same. I read this as a representative of the state, with a heightened disciplinary approach towards certain communities. Given the current scenario of the deputy prime minister’s daughter getting off with a relatively minor fine for breaching lockdown measures (while others have been given stricter sentences), it hints at the imbalance in heavy-handedness still existing in Malaysia.

Certainly, minorities like the Malaysian Indian community have often been given the shorter end of the stick. I may be overreaching with that analysis, for ‘Virus Mairus’ was a film made in a quick turnaround under highly restricted conditions for a specific competition. Yet those behind the camera are people who know how many filmmaking beans in a row make five. I must admit to being less familiar with the work of Gogularaajan (editor of ‘Metro Maalai’), but the name of Shanjhey Kumar Perumal (as the co-writer) jumps out as someone whose films are socially aware.

In addition to his feature film debut ‘Jagat’ (where Hassan Muthalib praised him for challenging social structures), I am also reminded of his BMW Shorties winner in 2009, ‘Machai’ crossing the same intersections. The winner for People’s Choice Award of the same competition the following year? S. Balachandran’s ‘Kickstart’, in which the lead character turns to a life of crime precisely because he feels he has been pushed into it. In that light, ‘Virus Mairus’ feels like an attempt to shed light on the other side of the coin, with one particular scene (where a wedding was the justification for purchasing a lot of beer) probably contextualising the aforementioned WhatsApp picture.

Even if that is not the case, I am on surer ground in saying that the film is quite funny. Gogularaajan has struck a nice balance between a dreary situation and its humourous potential, with scene in the lift a particular winner. This was certainly noted by the Kuman Pictures Challenge judge himself, Shamyl Othman. “Addiction and confinement can be quite a scary combination,” he noted in announcing the film as the competition’s winner. “You really don’t know if you should laugh or cry by the end of this one.” For my part, I leaned more towards the former, even as I am aware of the logic of the latter.

Perhaps that is more a reflection of me, but what is more certain is that ‘Virus Mairus’ is a sign of the times as well. In and of itself, it is a fine film with numerous high points. Beyond that, no film is made in a vacuum, and the filmmakers have created one compressed with social commentary and discussion. That it has come under very restricted conditions (mirrored by some scenes in the film) makes it all the more impressive, and Gogularaajan and his team certainly deserved their share of the Kuman Pictures Challenge spoils.

Check out the production script for the film, written by Gogularaajan and Shanjhey Perumal Kumar. You can also watch the Kuman Pictures Challenge ten finalists and special mentions, while we covered our own selection of the submissions in the 60th episode of the podcast.

Featured image credit: Haus of Zeros/Unsplash

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