In its purported celebration of India’s unsung vaccine heroes, ‘The Vaccine War’ falls short, leaning more towards presenting opinions rather than grounded facts.
Adapted from Prof. Balram Bhargava’s ‘Going Viral,’ the film, ‘The Vaccine War,’ endeavours to honour India’s scientific community. By delving into the untold story of unsung heroes, the documentary unfolds the remarkable journey behind the creation of India’s indigenous COVID-19 vaccine, ‘Covaxin.’ Within seven months, these dedicated individuals, often overlooked, accomplished the extraordinary feat of developing a homegrown solution. The narrative seeks to shine a spotlight on their relentless efforts, providing insight into the challenges, triumphs, and collaborative spirit that fueled this scientific achievement. ‘The Vaccine War’ invites audiences to witness not just a scientific breakthrough but a testament to the resilience and determination of India’s scientific minds in the face of a global crisis.
Vivek Ranjan Agnihotri’s ‘The Vaccine War’ proudly declares itself as India’s inaugural ‘bio-science film,’ a term that remains somewhat ambiguous. Despite the filmmaker’s assertions to spotlight the often-overlooked heroes in India’s battle against the COVID-19 pandemic and the challenges surrounding the creation of the nation’s first indigenous vaccine, the documentary leans heavily towards subjective viewpoints rather than objective facts. The film, while claiming to unravel the complexities of misinformation, appears to be more of an expression of opinions than a factual exploration. Agnihotri’s narrative approach in ‘The Vaccine War’ raises questions about the balance between artistic interpretation and journalistic rigour, leaving audiences to navigate the blurred lines between cinematic storytelling and documentary authenticity.
The narrative meticulously chronicles the development of Covaxin, a collaborative effort by Bharat Biotech, ICMR, and the National Institute of Virology (NIV). Spanning a challenging runtime of 2 hours and 40 minutes, this medical drama retraces the unfolding events in India triggered by the initial outbreak of the coronavirus in Wuhan, China. Beyond its role as a documentary, the film assumes the guise of a didactic response, addressing the severe criticism faced by the central government for its perceived mishandling of the pandemic, resulting in substantial loss of human lives.
‘The Vaccine War’ unfolds as a two-part narrative. The initial segment delves into the lives of scientists, amplifying their voices. In contrast, the latter transforms into a governmental defence, aiming to counter allegations. The film ascends admirably in the first half, only to plummet in the second, compromising its sincerity and emotional resonance.
The film’s most vulnerable aspect lies in portraying the media as malevolent, suggesting that it is the actual “virus” requiring shutdown. The assertion that this is not a “bio war” but an “info war” underscores the narrative, labeling the media as a puppet manipulated by “foreign powers” through funding, resembling an unverified WhatsApp message.
While the film condemns specific journalists and their perceived biases, it inadvertently falls prey to a one-sided mindset itself. The phrase “Never wrestle with pigs. You both get dirty, and the pig likes it” is employed to justify the unnecessary nature of press conferences, asserting that the media solely spreads misinformation. However, the complete dismissal of dissenting opinions, painting them with an anti-Bharat bias, proves ineffective.
The inclusion of conspiracy theories surrounding China’s deliberate virus leak, pharmaceutical lobbies, media trials, and alleged collaborations with foreign powers tends to lean more towards opinion than fact. The film’s narrative appears more subjective than objective, undermining its claim to deliver an unbiased exploration of events.
However, the film shines in specific aspects. The script draws inspiration from authentic characters, capturing their daily struggles and workplace dynamics during a global crisis. The storytelling adeptly portrays internal communication, organizational chaos, and conflicts. Technically, the film surpasses Agnihotri’s recent works, showcasing a high level of proficiency. Nana Patekar, portraying Dr. Balram Bhargava (DG-ICMR), and Pallavi Joshi, as Dr. Priya Abraham, Director-NIV, deliver flawless performances. Girija Oak Godbole effectively embodies the character of Dr. Nivedita Gupta (ICMR). These strong performances contribute significantly to the film’s success, adding authenticity and depth to the portrayal of characters amidst the challenges posed by the pandemic.
The most significant challenge with ‘The Vaccine War’ lies in Agnihotri’s inclination to shape it more as a statement rather than an exploration. The arguments presented are overly optimistic, and the motivations seem somewhat simplistic. Even when confronted with a formidable antagonist, the deadly invisible virus, the director can’t resist humanizing the figures he aims to critique. While acknowledging that the media has seldom been a solution, in a film ostensibly addressing diligence and dignity, perhaps the focus on the authentic labour of science could have sufficed. Instead of merely narrating an underdog story and delving into its intricacies, ‘The Vaccine War’ attempts to portray Indian scientists as victims, wronged whenever accountability is sought. This narrative seems out of place for a film striving to be relevant. Yet, its watchability is sustained by the sincerity of this unexpected narrative conquest alone.