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‘The Vaccine War’ Review: An Effective Tale of Heroism for the Most Part

'The Vaccine War', directed by Vivek Agnihotri, hit theatres on 28 September.

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The COVID-19 pandemic was a time of extreme human suffering but it was also a time of heroic human excellence. Vivek Agnihotri’s latest The Vaccine War focuses mostly on the latter and is based on a book by Balram Bhargava, the then Director General of the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR). The film follows the efforts by the ICMR and the NIV (National Institute of Virology) that went into engineering a vaccine for a highly infectious virus. 

'The Vaccine War', directed by Vivek Agnihotri, hit theatres on 28 September.

A still from The Vaccine War.

(Photo Courtesy: YouTube)

The Vaccine War’s first half is a pretty decent watch, mostly because of the way the film takes the audience into the intricate workings of the labs where the experiments are occurring. It is also worthy of note that the film doesn’t tone down most of the scientific jargon and yet one doesn’t have to understand everything being discussed to keep track of the narrative. 

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In an almost Mission Mangal fashion, the film focuses its lens on the women around Dr Bhargava, who all play a crucial role in India’s vaccine journey. Their lives, their camaraderie within their workplace, their disagreements, and the pressure they’re in are all expertly portrayed by the story and by the actors.

'The Vaccine War', directed by Vivek Agnihotri, hit theatres on 28 September.

A still from The Vaccine War.

(Photo Courtesy: YouTube)

Pallavi Joshi as Dr Priya Abraham, the Director of NIV, is a standout. She commands every scene she is in, even when she isn’t the focus. Sapthami Gowda, Girija Oak, and Nivedita Bhattacharya, too, deserve due credit for their performances. Girija Oak’s sequences with her family, albeit hammy in writing, do often succeed in dredging up the feelings they’re meant to.

Hers is one of the best performances in the film, comparable only to the scenes between Patekar and Joshi.

Patekar plays the role of Dr Bhargava with a stoicism that borders on indifference. He prefers the simple pleasures in life but that also makes him tough to work with because he doesn’t want to bother himself with the things his team is actively dealing with. 

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The back-and-forth between Dr Abraham and him are some of the film’s most effective scenes and that is primarily because of the way both the actors employ restraint. 

Is The Vaccine War preachy? Absolutely. But its biggest flaw is that it, once again, sacrifices its own subjects for an one-sided narrative. The film’s first half that focuses on the team’s sacrifices and efforts is engaging to the point of being able to forgive the unnecessary background score; you’re invested in the characters on screen. 

'The Vaccine War', directed by Vivek Agnihotri, hit theatres on 28 September.

A still from The Vaccine War.

(Photo Courtesy: YouTube)

The pandemic isn’t an event very far back in the pages of history – we’re still reeling from the consequences of a worldwide pandemic. So, there is really no need for the sound of laboured breathing to accompany every visual of the virus. Exposition like this often hurts the film.

But the film diverts its attention to a different, more confusing subject. The film’s main adversary is a journalist named Rohini Singh Dhulia who works for ‘The Daily Wire’. She conspires with “foreign elements”, deploys a “toolkit” that is later to be burnt, is flippant to a fault, and opposing the government is her one goal in life. 

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At no point does the film acknowledge the media’s actual role during the pandemic. For a film that keeps repeating that one must separate the government from the country (and rightfully so), it paints an entire industry in one colour and it is clearly intentional. It is no secret that misinformation was rampant during the pandemic, often with real-life consequences, but The Vaccine War isn’t interested in that reality.

'The Vaccine War', directed by Vivek Agnihotri, hit theatres on 28 September.

A still from The Vaccine War.

(Photo Courtesy: YouTube)

“It is dangerous to ask questions,” a character remarks in a film that constantly questions why the media is asking questions. In a film that white-washes the actual human suffering of the pandemic because that will raise questions. In a film where the journalist is vilified for questioning the quality of medical infrastructure but the characters continue to (again, rightfully) lament that they don’t have enough resources or training. 

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There is also so much nuance in the anti-vax narrative that the film doesn’t explore and neither does it give itself credit or time to explore the critique of ‘big pharma’. The Vaccine War gets too caught up in its own design – by forgetting to continue to focus the screenplay on the actual heroes of the story, the healthcare workers and researchers across the country. 

The Vaccine War was, above all else, a fight against time and what a feat it is that the humans behind the vaccine were the ones to win. 

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