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Honest Review: Why 'The Vaccine War' Is Not the Story of India’s Scientists

For a film that claims to celebrate India's unsung vaccine heroes, The Vaccine War is more opinion than fact.

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Vivek Ranjan Agnihotri’s The Vaccine War claims to be India’s first 'bio-science film.' Whatever that is supposed to mean. 

For a film, and a filmmaker, that claims to bring into focus the uncelebrated heroes of India’s war against the COVID-19 pandemic and the misinformation that surrounded the making of the country’s first indigenous vaccine, The Vaccine War is more opinion than fact.

Actually, scratch that. It’s just propaganda.

Based on the book – Going Viral: Making Covaxin – by former Indian Council of Medical Research Director Dr Balram Bhargava, the film documents the development of the COVID-19 vaccine by the ICMR and Pune’s National Institute of Virology (NIV), in collaboration with Bharat Biotech. 

Nana Patekar plays Dr Bhargava's character as the Director General of the ICMR, while Pallavi Joshi portrays Dr Priya Abraham, the chief of NIV. Girija Oak, Nivedita Bhattacharya, and Anupam Kher also feature in key roles.

But Agnihotri’s film which is meant to celebrate our scientists has more villains than heroes – and is not really about the scientists.

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Villains of The Vaccine War

The very first villain that we encounter barely minutes into the 2 hour 41-minute film is China. We see multiple ICMR scientists go on and on accusing China of unleashing a bio-economic war on the world.

These scientists firmly believe and go on to “factually prove” – without actually sharing any facts – that China combined two viruses to create a bio weapon.

And it's not just China. International agencies and pharmaceutical companies are in this war too.

This brings us to the second villain. Who is running the agenda of these international agencies and pharma lobbies? The media and biased journalists.

Raima Sen plays The Daily Wire’s Science Editor Rohini Singh, who writes false articles, "takes away the dignity" of those who died during the pandemic by selling pictures of their graves, and spreads vaccine hesitancy based on “foreign toolkits” as only a “Bharat ka dushman” would do. 

(Now that I think of it, they've referred to India as Bharat throughout the film, did Agnihotri foreshadow the India vs Bharat debate?)

If the film is to be believed, all journalists are “terrorists” on the payroll of foreign entities who want to bring India down by creating a narrative about ICMR’s “substandard vaccines.”

And finally our third main villain – everyone who’s not the central government in India.

For a film that claims to celebrate India's unsung vaccine heroes, The Vaccine War is more opinion than fact.

Nana Patekar in a still from the film.

The World Health Organisation is a helpless body. The international agencies won’t approve India’s indigenous vaccines. The Delhi government demanded four times more oxygen than was required. Foreign pharma companies and vaccine manufacturers are blackmailing India.

Everyone is at fault except the Centre. There's one dialogue in the film where the Cabinet Secretary (out of the blue) mentions that India is an atmanirbhar (self-reliant) country.

This, while Agnihotri continually tells the audience that there are “orchestrated campaigns against India” globally and a “deliberate discrimination."

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What The Film Could Actually Have Focused On

If Agnihotri actually wanted to show what the scientists went through while developing the vaccine, there’s so much he could have delved into that he casually mentions in the film.

For instance, the film shows an incident from March 2020 when thousands of Indian citizens got stranded in Iran after a COVID wave overtook the country.

The ICMR-NIV decided to send scientists to Iran to set up testing labs and evacuate Indian citizens from there. But, Indian scientists were stopped at the airport because they didn’t have Rs 1 lakh to pay for excess luggage (testing kits). 

Scientists from Pune’s NIV were made to catch monkeys (for vaccine-related experiments) in the depth of Nagpur’s forests where they were also stuck for many days. 

In fact, in the book that the film is based on, Dr Bhargava wrote:

"A dedicated team from ICMR-NIV travelled to areas of Maharashtra to identify sites for animal capture. The Maharashtra forest department helped to track them down, scanning several square kilometres of forests for days to track the monkeys, before finally finding them near Nagpur."

The scientists were lacking resources at every step and were short staffed. But that was not addressed in any manner in the film.

And you know what’s ironic? Everywhere the journalist Rohini goes, she’s accompanied by 4-5 people as camerapersons, research assistants, etc (this is not how journalists work by the way).
For a film that claims to celebrate India's unsung vaccine heroes, The Vaccine War is more opinion than fact.

Raima Sen in a still from the film.

But the ICMR and NIV teams are perpetually seen not having enough people. Is the film suggesting that a private media house has more resources than the government of India? Or is the film just avoiding getting to the cause of these issues?

But that’s not it.

There’s also no mention of the human cost of the pandemic, the lockdown, the many anti-poor policies of the government that wreaked havoc…

Legit concerns about irregularities during the development of Covaxin, the loopholes in the data of the different phases of clinical trials, the issue that the vaccine was “rushed” for political purposes are all brushed away, citing them as “anti-national” sentiments.

What the film also avoids talking about is India's reputation as the vaccine manufacturing hub of the world. In fact, Agnihotri keeps telling the audience that no one, in independent India's history, except for the current regime has believed in our scientists or cared about them or paid heed to them.

But that is not really the case. For many years now, Indian pharmaceutical companies have been supplying over 50 percent of the vaccines required globally for different immunisation programmes. Pune-based Serum Institute of India (SII) is actually the world's largest vaccine manufacturer in the world.

The scientists' achievement is no small feat. But it didn't happen overnight. It was built on years of research and tried-and-tested tools that our health bodies have mastered.

A 2021 report in Germany-based Deutsche Welle (DW) said:

"Indian vaccine manufacturers including SII, Bharat Biotech, Panacea Biotec, Sanofi Shantha Biotechnics, Biological E, Hester Biosciences and Zydus Cadila have an installed capacity to manufacture 8.2 billion doses of different vaccines every year."
And leave aside throwing any light on the many other controversies that surrounded the vaccine trials – CoWIN lapses, privacy and security threats about Aarogya Setu – the film just becomes a huge mush of nationalism, when it could have been about scientific temperament. 
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My Final Two Cents…

For what it’s worth, the only point that the film decently puts across is how women scientists were the leading figures who contributed majorly to the development of the vaccine.

But just as they put this point across, they go ahead to comment on how these scientists saved the country while they were also doing dishes at home and “handling the tantrums of their husbands.”

Instead of glorifying this patriarchal expectation of women managing everything, the film could have certainly done things better.

And sorry, but I don’t need a lecture on women’s empowerment from a film that fails to understand basic gender and societal nuances. Or to give the makers a little more credit, I don't need a film that gives a horror background music to a virus to preach to me.

No one is denying that the story of how Indian scientists made a vaccine in record-time needs to be told. But The Vaccine War is not that story.

If anything, it’s science wrapped in nationalistic jingoism. 

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Topics:  The Vaccine War   Vaccine   Vivek Agnihotri 

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