Vivek Ranjan Agnihotri‘s latest film The Vaccine War makes for a rivetting watch – for its stellar performances, tightly knit plot and for making one realize that India Can Do It
So before one talks about The Vaccine War, here’s an incident that I would like to share with you. It was April 2019 and yours truly had been invited for a press preview of the Alia Bhatt-Madhuri Dixit-Nene flop show Kalank. It was to be followed by a press preview of The Tashkent Files one of Vivek Agnihotri’s earlier films.
As it turned out, there were enough friends from the fraternity at the screening to watch the former but hardly anyone who was willing to stay back for the latter. So, I felt compelled to ask a film critic friend as to why so many weren’t going to stay back for the second film or ‘boycott it’ in a tacit understanding – as it were. She just smiled wryly and said, “Well you know… it’s Vivek Agnihotri and frankly, you know how he is..”. “You mean… ideologically?” I ventured. She smiled wider and replied, “Yeah”. I was still puzzled. “But what does that have to do with watching his film? I mean, you can agree or disagree with it, right?” She continued to smile at me as she would at a slightly delinquent child who insists on asking rhetorical questions. … “Well, whatever…” she waved her hand airily.
While one had an idea of where the discussion might be headed, one is nothing if not persistent. “At least, see the film and then trash it if you don’t like it. But what will be achieved by not watching it?” That is the least that is expected professionally, I added silently. But the look in her eyes told me the discussion was over. Not that there had been any to start with.
The point one is making here is very similar to the one Agnihotri makes in The Vaccine War. Infact, the sub-plot of a reluctant media person who refuses to acknowledge that making of an indigenous vaccine is a matter of pride, is patterned on so many colleagues that one knows. The role of Rohini Dhulia (essayed by Raima Sen) is to forever raise doubts even when facts on ground are staring her in the face. And she does a great job of it. Still, by the end of the film, you’re wishing the Daily Wire’s Science Editor Dhulia would stop being obdurate for the sake of it. It is a subplot that stays with you long after the film is over but not in a good way. And not because Dhulia is just doing ‘her job’. It stays with you because the underlying agenda and the amplification of it (at the cost of many lives and during the world’s worst pandemic of the century) is to undermine every effort that perhaps may instill some pride in you as an Indian or even as a human being for fighting tremendous odds.
And as a media person with over three decades of experience, I am still unable to wrap my head around this thinking. It makes one wonder about the psyche of some individuals out there who are deliberately being obtuse and justifying it too. As a journalist one fully appreciates that there can be no good story without questioning or research but to dismiss someone’s body of work merely because you disagree with them ideologically is another level of prejudice. The story of our times, I say. And most unfortunately so.
As The Vaccine War exemplifies (and which is unlikely to go down well with the ‘liberal’ friends of mine, to put it mildly) it is nothing if not insidious undercutting of an entire fraternity’s (in this case the scientists at Indian Council of Medical Research along with the National Institute of Virology, Pune) efforts at building a credible product in the midst of a war against a deadly virus. I am talking about the Vaccine created by the efforts of ICMR and NIV and which came to be known as Covaxin – a vaccine which would in the near future benefit millions across the globe.
The Vaccine War directed by Vivek Ranjan Agnihotri focuses precisely on this aspect of the pandemic and is based on the book Going Viral – Making of Covaxin: The Inside Story authored by Dr Balram Bhargava, then Director General (DG) of ICMR, the man entrusted with the duty of winning a war against the Corona Virus – unleashed on an unsuspecting and helpless population worldwide. From trying to figure out from where the virus originated, to isolating it in NIV to finding its possible antidote and all the way to having Bharat Biotech manufacturing the vaccine, The Vaccine War covers it all.
While Nana Patekar plays Dr Bhargava, Pallavi Joshi is Dr Priya Abraham who was heading NIV at the time. Reporting to them and supporting them is an exemplary team of women scientists who work day and night under trying conditions, all the while making sacrifices to deliver what is needed to save lives.
Agnihotri doesn’t veer away from his chosen subject at all – which is his core strength as a filmmaker. In fact, so closely does he stick to the plot of his film that he barely touches upon the chaos spreading outside of the sanitized environs of labs and offices where commands are being issued and followed without a murmur. And then you realise that that is something you’re already privy to, as you too have been on the receiving end of the Virus and been a witness to all the fear and chaos as well.
Back in the film and as it must have unfolded in 2020-21, fixed working hours dissolve into long nights; even a day’s leave is too precious to be allowed; scientists are called back on duty just as they’ve landed home late night post work as something more urgent than sleep and quality time with family has come up; children, spouses and parents learn to live without their women warriors or soldiers as Bhargava refers to them as a Vaccine has to be made in record time. It truly is a war out there.. and they cannot afford to lose it.
A man of few words and perhaps even lesser compassion Bhargava is hell bent on delivering a product which probably could become the most potent antidote to this unknown virus. Patekar, for once, is only Bhargava and not for a moment does one believe otherwise… the hallmark of any great actor. As he tackles problems after problems put up by his team while refusing to acknowledge the naysayers (whether in media or some of his own cynical subordinates) you long for him to cut slack. But the circumstances dictate otherwise and he can’t bring himself to do anything but.
Patekar is outstanding in his performance as Bhargava while Joshi as Abraham and Oak as Dr. Nivedita stand tall in their respective roles, as they support him unstintingly.
The Vaccine War is raw, realistic and deserves to be watched by any and every one who has been affected by the pandemic – whether directly or indirectly. It smartly skirts controversy (though those go looking for it will dig it up anyhow) by not bringing in the role of the political establishment overtly. While there are scenes which touch upon the PMO and the role it may have played during this time, it is built entirely around the untiring efforts of our institutions’ scientific community.
The Vaccine War is a film that makes its case powerfully, without unnecessary drama, song and dance. And I share just one more reason why it makes sense to see it. So when the discussions were raging in households about which vaccine to take – Covaxin or Covishield – another veteran journalist friend, similar to the one described above, mentioned that she wanted enough proof that a vaccine would be effective against the deadly virus before she or her family would take one… Once again, I waded in innocuously to ask… “Which one are you planning to take? Covaxin or…” and was unceremoniously interrupted with, “No way. No way am I going to be taking Covaxin. We just don’t have it in us to create our own vaccine. I am definitely going to be checking out the other one and not take any chances.”
Well, my family and I took Covaxin as did so many others. And I have survived to tell you this tale. Need I say more?
Disclaimer : The views expressed in this article are solely that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of eastindiastory.com or its affiliates
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Manjulaa Shirodkar (nee Negi) is an established film critic and author, having worked in leading national publications. She is also a Film Selection Committee member for various film festivals.