Film: The Vaccine War
Director: Vivek Agnihotri
Cast: Nana Patekar, Anupam Kher, Pallavi Joshi, Raima Sen, Sapthami Gowda
After ‘The Kashmir Files’, writer-director Vivek Agnihotri is here with ‘The Vaccine War’ that charts the challenging journey of India’s first indigenous vaccine.
The 161-minute film opens on January 1, 2020. An unprecedented threat looms large. At the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), Director-General Prof Balram Bhargava (Nana Patekar) is prepping his team for what could be. Divided into 12 sections, the film brings to light the momentous journey to make Bharat ‘saksham’ and find a way out of the crisis in record time. He relies on his team at ICMR and the National Institute of Virology headed by Dr Priya Abram (Pallavi Joshi).
Right from setting up testing labs to evacuating Indians stuck in Iran, isolating the virus to making the vaccine, the story charts some familiar terrains, others not so. How scientists work day and night and rise above the challenges, both personal and professional, seeps through. Though the film shows no politicians, it represents the government through the cabinet secretary (Anupam Kher), shown to be all-supportive, getting the clearances and backing the scientists.
The first half builds up the dread and doom, the lockdown and the dedication of the frontline workers, including Prof Bhargava’s peon Bahadur. The narrative also highlights their personal lives — Prof Bhargava is a caring father; Dr Nivedita Gupta (Girija Oak Godbole) carries on with the rigorous schedules despite her son showing signs of anxiety. Whether it is a pregnant scientist volunteering to go to Iran or a single mom bringing the baby along because work has to go on — it’s an ode to Indian women scientists too.
Based on the book ‘Going Viral: Making Covaxin’ by former ICMR director Dr Balram Bhargava, it fills one with pride and hope of an India that’s truly independent. In the second half, the narrative shifts to an info war. The foreign lobbies are represented through a journalist, Rohini Singh Dhulia (Raima Sen), who is trying to undermine the achievement of Indian scientists.
There are spectacular performances led by Patekar. Joshi maintains her South Indian accent and her empathetic character through the film. Raima Sen and Nivedita Bhattacharya are impressive. The film shows the government in glowing light, though there is a passing mention of all that could’ve been avoided — elections, Kumbh mela.
It’s a dialogue-driven film that’s shot beautifully. The credit goes to cinematographer Udaysingh Mohite. The sound of ‘fighting for breath’ as the background score fits thematically. ‘Nasadiya Sukta’ by the late composer Vanraj Bhatia gives goosebumps. While we are living in times of toolkits, Agnihotri’s strategy of making one woman the face of the antagonist (like Radhika Menon in ‘The Kashmir Files’) isn’t the best. It turns out to be too simple to allow that willing suspension of disbelief.
As the credits roll and talk of real heroes, the scientists, one is filled with hope. If you can overlook the upcoming elections and treat it just as a film, it leaves one with the inspiration to take the first step — karna hai to karna hai.