The Vaccine War: Movie Review
The latest offering by Vivek Agnihotri is a daring venture: a tribute to the scientists at the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) who played a vital role in India’s battle against the COVID pandemic. The movie is an adaptation of Balram Bhargava’s book Going Viral. It sensitively portrays the intense hard work, academic brilliance, dedication and fortitude of the ICMR team in the face of an unprecedented global catastrophe. And this is a story that needed to be told, because we don’t celebrate our scientists enough. Hardly anyone knows that they spent weeks in the dense jungles of Maharashtra, trying to catch the monkeys needed for clinical trials of Covaxin. The deeply sensitive portrayal of personal sacrifices of the predominantly woman scientist team of ICMR, risking their lives every day handling dangerous viruses, being unable to meet their families for months on end, putting aside personal loss of their loved ones to be there at work with single minded determination, makes you teary-eyed on more than one occasion. Contrary to what is being said in a section of the media, this movie is really about the scientists and only in passing about the government, which is shown as supportive and proactive – and following the science and scientists.
I would also like to thank Vivek Ranjan Agnihotri for showing what we as frontline health workers went through during the pandemic. And this is deeply personal. Watching “The Vaccine War” was not easy. It was like reliving the darkest days of my life. These are days I will never forget, and which have made their permanent impact on frontline workers like me. Many of us and our family members suffered from the traumatic stress disorder depicted so poignantly in the film. We as doctors ran a COVID hospital throughout the three waves of the pandemic. We saw almost a thousand of our colleagues succumb to the disease in the first wave. The fear of death that Nana Patekar sees in the eyes of his treating doctor when he himself is seriously ill due to COVID, was very real. We therefore took the vaccine at the first available opportunity and also ran a COVID vaccination center for over a year. As a result of prioritising health workers and senior citizens, countless lives were saved before the deadly second wave hit. I would have liked a better depiction of the fact that we were not helpless or without vaccines during the second wave, since Covishield had been rolled out. Admittedly this would dilute the impact of the narrative a bit and then, this story is about Covaxin.
Nana Patekar as ICMR chief Dr Balram Bhargava totally lives the part. Pallavi Joshi is outstanding as NIV head Dr Priya Abraham, and her Keralite look is spot on. Sapthami Gowda, Nivedita Bhattacharya and Girija Oak turn in fabulous performances as the scientists of ICMR. Raima Sen is very hateable as sold out journalist Rohini Singh Dhulia. Mohan Joshi and Anupam Kher have short roles, which are played competently.
Here, I would like to add that the portrayal of journalists and media leaves something to be desired. It is undoubtedly true that some journalists and media platforms did simp for foreign vaccines and ran unjustified narratives against Covaxin. It is also true that Bharat Biotech had to go to court, file for defamation and get restraining orders against them. But it is equally true that by and large, the media’s conveyance of the government’s messaging to the people as well as their coverage of India’s vaccination drive was positive and contributed hugely to its success. This lopsided portrayal has unfortunately resulted in avoidable negative reviews for a movie that deserves to be seen and celebrated. Also, rather than being unwilling to talk to the media until forced into a final grand confrontation as is shown in the movie for the purpose of dramatisation, Dr Bhargava and Dr Randeep Guleria were actually very communicative to the media and held almost daily briefings that were also broadcast live to the people at large on YouTube.
The message of “The Vaccine War” is Yes, India can do it. And our scientists proved it right. They did it. This excellent movie reminds you of what it takes. The blood, sweat and tears that go into it. For that, and for daring to make a film on an important topic that is of doubtful commercial return, Vivek Agnihotri and Pallavi Joshi deserve deep appreciation.