Vivek Agnihotri’s The Vaccine War had so much potential as a film about the unsung heroes of the COVID-19 pandemic — the scientific community that battled various odds to deliver the Covaxin vaccine. If only it told the stories of the heroes instead of getting diverted into fleshing out the villains.
Divided into 12 chapters, the film works best when its focus is on the scientists led by ICMR chief Balaram Bhargava (Nana Patekar), which is essentially the first half. Agnihotri is able to create palpable tension as the scientists of the National Institute of Virology — mostly women, led by Priya Abraham (Pallavi Joshi) — race against time to isolate the coronavirus, study it and work on creating and testing the vaccine.
Set mostly inside sterile laboratories and boardrooms, the first half of The Vaccine War feels real, especially because of the human face that Patekar, Joshi and the other actors — Nivedita Bhattacharya, who plays Pragya Yadav; Girija Oak, who plays Nivedita Gupta; and Sapthami Gowda, who plays Sreelakshmy Mohandas — bring to the screen in heartfelt performances.
The film manages to personalise the struggles of these women — mothers who haven’t met their children in days, wives who haven’t been home for a long time, daughters-in-law who’ve come to work the day their mothers-in-law have died because creating the vaccine came first. These are stories of women and men who hadn’t slept for days and had breakdowns because of the immense responsibility on their shoulders. It works. Until the film starts to bring in the villains and, of course, the Thanos of all villains is the media.
To paint the entire media industry with a unidimensional unscrupulous brush, represented by Rohini Singh Dhulia (Raima Sen) who distorts facts, works for the global big pharma, sells photos of India’s COVID-19 second wave catastrophe and creates vaccine hesitancy, is an overkill. The media is likened to terrorists who hit and run, and pigs who revel in mud. It is funny how this one journalist is capable of almost derailing all the hard work of the scientists and the government.
The Vaccine War praises the central government for standing by science, for doing away with red tape and enabling the fast production of the vaccine. But it never talks about the government’s severe mismanagement of the lockdown that led to the loss of hundreds of lives. The lockdown is merely a few picturesque shots of empty roads across the country. Neither is there any mention of the CoWin site crashing.
Conspiracy theories abound and China is blamed for the pandemic, big pharma is accused of paying the media to engage in anti-indigenous vaccine campaigns, the Delhi government alone is blamed for hoarding oxygen cylinders like it wasn’t happening anywhere else, and foreign agencies are blamed for conspiring against India and not approving Covaxin. There are shots of hundreds of dead bodies and burning pyres only for the media to sell those pictures to foreign newspapers. Anything that contradicts the narrative is termed anti-India and brushed away.
The sad thing is that The Vaccine War could have done without veering into any of this and sticking to the stories of the people it says it wants to celebrate. Why couldn’t the film spend more time on the scientists who couldn’t board the flight to Iran for lack of Rs 1 lakh? Or what happened during the rescue operation there? Why couldn’t it spend more time on the team of scientists who went monkey hunting in the forests of Maharashtra, spending days in the jungle just so that they could start non-human primate trials?
These are the stories that would have made The Vaccine War the medical thriller it poses to be. Unfortunately, for its entire second half, it ends up like a public service announcement than the bio-science film it claims to be.