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Pandemic and disaster stories on screen: to see or to not see, that is the question

Pandemic and disaster stories on screen: to see or to not see, that is the question

Published:17 April 2020

As the COVID-19 pandemic spreads across the world, films such as Hollywood blockbuster “Contagion” and the Malayalam thriller “The Virus” are back in our ‘entertainment' reckoning and people are either fleeing or flocking to them.

New Delhi | Art imitates life most times but what happens when life mimics the movies, echoing doomsday scenarios being played out in reality? As the COVID-19 pandemic spreads across the world, films such as Hollywood blockbuster “Contagion” and the Malayalam thriller “The Virus” are back in our ‘entertainment' reckoning and people are either fleeing or flocking to them.
They are either fans or not -- few maybes in these days when much of the world has shut down to ward off the disease, which has infected more than two million people and claimed more than 1,37,000 lives. Steven Soderberg's 2011 eerily prescient medical thriller "Contagion", which deals with a deadly virus that is spread through a bat, is bang in the middle of the debate.
To some, it is an uncomfortable reminder of a grim present and a grimmer future. For others, it is about hope.
"Soderberg dealt with everything in-depth and my take away from it was one about hope. I know that a cure for COVID-19 will come sooner or later," said Rakhi, a homemaker.
Khusboo Bhatia, a senior executive at an MNC, said she prefers rom-coms these days and wants to stay away from films that echo the present.
"I haven't watched 'Contagion', more so because of the reviews received by people who have watched it and the uncanny resemblance to the current situation in countries affected the most,” she said.
Soderberg's film starts in China and shows the virus spreading worldwide, exacting a toll of over 25 million people.
As COVID-19 travelled from China to Iran, Italy, Spain, France and across the world, the film also saw a surge in viewership across many platforms. It emerged as one of the most watched films on Amazon Prime Video and was the seventh most viewed movie on iTunes in March in the US.
According to a recent paper released by piracy analytics company MUSO, "Contagion" saw a jump from 546 visits on January 7 to 30,418 visits by January 31 on piracy streaming sites. The film's pirated download saw a surge of whopping 5,609 per cent in the month. Figures for the following months are not available yet.
Malayalam filmmaker Aashiq Abu's 2019 "The Virus" is not fiction but documents recent history with many parallels to the present. It focuses on the 2018 Nipah virus outbreak in Kerala that claimed the lives of 17 people.
It documents how Kerala responded quickly to contain the outbreak and a group of doctors worked round the clock to contact trace those infected by it. It also talks about the Islamophobia because of the index victim.
Kerala has come in for praise for its handling of the coronavirus pandemic. The debate over the pandemic has taken on communal overtones in many parts of the country.
Long before "Contagion" and "Virus" was the Morgan Stanley-Dustin Hoffman starrer "Outbreak". The 1995 feature was about a group of CDC scientists racing against time to stop the spread of a new viral hemorrhagic disease.
The film added a plot twist about an army general who wants to use the disease as a bio-weapon against the enemies of the US.
Terry Gilliam's cult classic "12 Monkeys" released the same year. The movie is about a man (Bruce Willis) who travels back in time to stop the group, called Army of the Twelve Monkeys, from releasing a deadly virus that has nearly wiped the whole humanity.
In 2013 came South Korean thriller "The Flu", chronicling the spread of a highly dangerous strain of H5N1 virus in the city of Bundang.
There are many other films dealing with pandemics, zombie outbreaks or, in the case of “Chernobyl”, retracing a nuclear disaster and the government's poor response to it. HBO's 2019 hit series tells the stories of the first responders to the nuclear disaster in 1986.
Will Smith's "I am Legend", Milla Jovovich's "Resident Evil" films, Pitt's World War Z", Danny Boyle's "28 Days Later" and its sequel "28 Weeks Later", and South Korean hit "Train to Busan" are some of the best-remembered movies in the genre.
On the TV front, shows such as "Walking Dead", its spinoff "Fear the Walking Dead", Netflix series "Kingdom" and National Geographic's miniseries "The Hot Zone", based on Richard Preston's book of the same name, dealt with an outbreak of a contagious disease.
Not everyone is a fan though.
Sidaq Batra, a film aficionado, said movies dealing with doom and gloom are the last thing he wants to watch now.
"I don't look forward to doomsday films, only for the reason that everything seems to be doomed," he added.
Sharing similar views, Shubham Pandey, a journalist, said he would rather focus on finding interesting movies from previous years.
Raj Nidimuro, who co-directed the 2013 movie "Go Goa Gone" about a zombie outbreak, said he has consciously taken a decision to cut off scary and negative things.
"These films will make you think even more. Instead, I am watching regular grounded shows. I have also cut off seeing news and reading on social media about all the articles that are written. The news anyways is coming to me. So I don't want to overindulge in the news," he added.
Like many others, "Thappad" co-writer Mrunmayee Lagoo Waikul is also indulging in content that will keep her happy.
"I'm watching light stuff because the news is horrifying enough. We are already in it and to watch all of that…," she said.
Mexican star Diego Luna, best known for his turn as a drug mafia in “Narcos: Mexico” and Steven Spielberg's “The Terminal”, said he watched “Chernobyl” during his self-isolation and it was “terrifying”.
In an Instagram live chat with IndieWire's Eric Kohn, Luna, who is back home in the Mexico city, said the response to COVID-19 by governments is similar to what happened with Chernobyl.
"I remember in London one day before we were told it was time to go home, I tried to watch ‘Chernobyl' and it was such a big mistake. Terrifying! I was seeing the reaction of so many governments to COVID-19 represented in that show.
"That beginning of the show where the authorities say no, no, nothing's happening, everything's under control. It sounded so much like what we were living in," Luna said.


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