In 2021, Dr Balram Bhargava, the then director general of the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) which was handling all communication and research around Covid-19 in the pandemic years, published a book titled, Going Viral - Making of Covaxin: The Inside Story.
The book was a tribute to all those involved in the making of Covaxin—India's indigenous vaccine to fight the novel coronavirus that had wreaked havoc in India and the world. It was an ode to the entire medical fraternity that was involved in the making of the vaccine and the frontliners who played a commendable role in ensuring that the dose reached the last man standing, in the remotest of places across the country.
However, it failed to talk about lapses in communication, the critical arguments that questioned the efficacy, impact and the sheer possibility of developing a vaccine in such a short span of time.
Likewise, Vivek Agnihotri's latest film, The Vaccine War, too, toes a similar line. It highlights the seven-month journey that it took for Indian researchers and scientists to bring out an indigenous vaccine, and that it does in a convincing and engrossing way. But it fails to address the other pertinent aspects.
In an earlier interview to THE WEEK, Dr Pragya Yadav, lead scientist at ICMR's National Institute of Virology which was the foremost institution in India to crack the genetic code of the novel coronavirus in India, had recalled the "nightmarish nights" during the initial days of the pandemic when an all-women team at the NIV would spend day and night at the institute in a bid to get cracking on the slightest clues that came in with the first patients landing in India from abroad. This has been beautifully and heartwarmingly captured in the film, and one really gets a good glimpse into how life was back then for our leading researchers and scientists, when the pressure to contain the virus and its spread was at its peak.
However, going forward, the question that remains on the top of our minds is—what really happened? Was this a lab leak? A natural virus transmitted by bats? What really happened? These questions are entirely missing from the narrative.
The portrayal of the media in its coverage of the pandemic and vaccine development does not come across as convincing, and feels as if there was only all-pervading sensationalism everywhere, which is a biased viewpoint. In a bid to highlight the scientific community's exemplary achievements, the then prevailing mood across the country has been shown to be dipped in 'negativity' and 'all pervading pessimism,' that undermines the efforts and capability of its leading researchers. This again, might not be entirely true.
In its story-telling approach, the film offers a rewarding cinematic experience because it entertains and engrosses the viewer. Acting is stellar and the music is apt.
In the role of Dr Priya Abraham, the head at NIV, Pallavi Joshi is convincing. But as a Malayali, she falters. Abraham's mallu accent is difficult to match; yet, in the hat of a scientist, Joshi pulls off the part well.
Raima Sen, in the role of a fake news champion, nails the part. Girija Oak, in the character of Dr Nivedita gives us a glimpse into the lives of the frontline medical workers who braved it all. The film stays clear of any reference to the part played by the minorities in spreading the virus, viz, the Tablighi Jamaat, a religious congregation that took place at Delhi's Nizamuddin Markaz Mosque in early March 2020 and was termed to be a super spreader event. Rather the film mentions how the Kumbh Mela celebrations and rallies during that time added to the spread during the Delta (third) wave.
The film makes its pro-government stance clear in numerous places, unapologetically. There is Dr Bhargava (played by Nana Patekar) praising the PM saying he is “pro-science”.
As a film, The Vaccine War is highly watchable; but, it is definitely not an unbiased portrayal of what happened.
Movie: The Vaccine War
Director: Vivek Agnihotri
Cast: Nana Patekar, Pallavi Joshi, Raima Sen, Girija Oak, Anupam Kher