A timely celebration of Indian scientists’ efforts to create an indigenous vaccine against COVID-19, The Vaccine War turns out to be a fulminating rant against the critics of the present dispensation who raised the speed vs. efficacy issue at the time of vaccine development and often question the government’s commitment to science.
Based on Going Viral, Dr. Balram Bhargava’s lucid account of the making of Covaxin, director Vivek Agnihotri efficiently dramatises the commitment and courage of the former director of the Indian Council of Medical Research and his dedicated team of scientists drawn from the ICMR and the National Institute of Virology.
From questioning China and the World Health Organisation’s ambivalence in not revealing the source of the virus to big pharma trying to hamstring the Indian government’s efforts to be self-reliant in vaccine manufacturing, the film is dotted with conspiracy theories but in its effort to find an antagonist in a real story, Agnihotri crafts a cardboard villain in the form of Rohini Singh Dhulia (Raima Sen), a science editor who deliberately wants to create doubts around the Indian vaccine to bring the government down with the help of a toolkit provided by her foreign sponsors. Placed more as a metaphorical punching bag in the narrative to be pummelled with labels like ‘terrorist’ and ‘swine’, the harangue against Rohini makes the film increasingly sound like it is part of a toolkit to keep critics of the government in check.
‘The Vaccine War’ (Hindi)
Director: Vivek Ranjan Agnihotri
Cast: Nana Patekar, Pallavi Joshi, Raima Sen, Anupam Kher, Pragya Yadav, Nivedita Gupta, Raman Gangakhedkar
Run-time: 160 minutes
Storyline: The courage and commitment of the scientists who raced against time to make India’s first indigenous vaccine against COVID-19
The film preaches that we separate the country from the government but the makers become conveniently selective. Without underlining how the country’s robust vaccination programme helped in creating a new vaccine with existing technology, the film suggests that a sense of purpose and an urge to be self-reliant has crept into the system under the current dispensation and underlines how it freed it from red tapism during the pandemic. As a borrowed metaphor, Agnihotri pastes Vanraj Bhatia’s iconic theme, drawn from Rig Veda chants for Shyam Benegal’s Bharat Ek Khoj, based on Jawaharlal Nehru’s The Discovery of India, to indicate the heralding of a new India.
Having said that, Agnihotri gets many things right in making the film an engaging experience for the most part. From creating a sense of dread at the start to generating a mood of urgency and self-belief in the scientific community, the film takes us to the glorious battles fought with majestic microorganisms in laboratories and simultaneously lays out the limitations under which Indian scientists work. The depiction of the ordinary life and sacrifices of the scientists who did extraordinary work during the crisis creates an emotional swell. It seems the personality of Bhargava has been tweaked on screen to suit the strengths of Nana Patekar. Or perhaps Patekar has been cast to personify the ruthless streak of the present dispensation to get the job done. Over the years, Nana has aced the part of a tough taskmaster who wears his love for the country on his sleeve. When he draws parallels between a soldier and a scientist, it reminds us of his Prahaar (1991) days. The low-angle camera shots add to the impact.
Together with Pallavi Joshi, who plays NIV director Priya Abraham, he provides the film with a credible emotional layering that ensures that the human drama is not lost in scientific jargon. The trusted performers keep mental faculties engaged and tear ducts lubricated as Bhargava tilts towards speed while Abraham is devoted to empiricism and the emotional needs of the team. It is an interesting tussle between the twin goals that scientists grappled with in the initial days of the pandemic. They are ably supported by Nivedita Bhattacharya, Girija Oak, and Mohan Kapoor — playing real-life scientists Pragya Yadav, Nivedita Gupta, and Raman Gangakhedkar — in creating a functional human drama in science labs as Indian scientists set out to understand the deadly virus, isolate it and then work to vanquish it. The narrative is lined with little tales of fortitude like bringing back Indian workers from Iran and finding rhesus monkeys for research. The intermittent sound of breathlessness provides a chilling effect to the otherwise drab background score.
It is when the screenplay starts reading like an official press release in the second half that one realises that Agnihotri’s real battle is not against the virus but to create a narrative against the skeptics, or the ‘ecosystem’ as he calls it, by cherry-picking the headlines.
Asking uncomfortable questions is intrinsic to scientific temper. In a scene, the cabinet secretary played by Anupam Kher tells Bhargava that the Prime Minister believes that only science should prevail but curiously, Bhargava doesn’t discuss the scientific advantages of the claptrap that the government created in the initial days of the pandemic to take on the fear of the virus. The forthright Bhargava doesn’t question how the then-health minister helped in instilling confidence in the scientific community when he shared the stage with the head of an Ayurveda company that promised a cure for COVID-19. It doesn’t tell us that vaccine hesitancy is not unique to Aligarh Muslim University and that it is a global phenomenon. And that the Delhi government was not solely responsible for the shortage of oxygen.
In the last few years, the common man is not only grappling with the COVID pandemic but is also struggling to survive the infodemic that has simultaneously gripped us. Our scientists have found a vaccine to limit the former but the latter is still spreading in different forms. After a promising first half, The Vaccine War feels like smartly adding to the load.
The Vaccine War is currently running in theatres