There are actually two movies within The Vaccine War, the latest from the stable of Vivek Agnihotri, the Bollywood commissar for right wing ideas.
One is about the valiant effort put up during the height of the pandemic by the unsung Indian scientists in the sedulous search for the medicine to safeguard against the coronavirus. It was a bravura fight against many odds, including physical discomfiture and isolation. The other is about the persistent voices from outside which the film alleges worked against India's interests.
The film is indeed gritty and inspiring in the portions it deals with the story of the scientists in pursuit of the indigenous vaccine. But when the film turns its attention to the group that it paints as the villains (especially sections of the media and certain media personnel) it loses the plot and becomes uncomfortably strident that it becomes a megaphone.
As Vivek Agnihotri has been saying, every film is a propaganda, in a sense. We in Tamil Nadu should know a bit about it as a generation of politicos from the Dravdian wing have made it to the top riding on the propaganda efficacy of movies. But the point is true art resides in subtlety. Like a smart doctor who expertly distracts the kid to jab the needle of medicine, good cinema doesn't openly let you on that it is injecting an idea.
It can be nobody's case that Agnihotri should not point out who he feels are the antagonists in India's spirited quest for a medicinal bulwark against the virus that caused havoc across the globe three years back. But the way he goes about it makes you wince.
In the film the journalist character named Rohini Singh Dhulia (Raima Sen) --- no prizes for guessing who is alluded to here --- is shown to push out fake stories. She is alleged to be using 'foreign toolkits' and operates as 'Bharat ka dushman'.
Well, these are words that belong in a Twitter fight, not in a cinematic chronicle of a scientific sleuth for an elusive medicine. Like in life, in cinema, too, how one expresses one's anger kind of makes a case whether one's anger is justified or not in the first place.
Good Science as Good Cinema
But when The Vaccine War actually busies itself with science and scientists, it makes for interesting watch. In the process it makes for a compelling case for telling science and its associated stories through cinema.
As many of you would know the film is based on the book, Going Viral: Making Covaxin, written by former Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) Director Dr Balram Bhargava. It is his view on the development of the COVID-19 vaccine by the ICMR and Pune’s National Institute of Virology (NIV), in collaboration with Bharat Biotech.
At a time of national emergency and calamity, the scientists waged an inspiring fight. They were up against science, and also, unfortunately, against some vested interests that were out to undermine their enterprising efforts.
Vivek Agnihotri's smartness in these portions lie in making it a human interest effort. And that is how successful science stories are taken to people who can otherwise find the subject matter a bit forbidding.
Some of the more popular mainstream written works on science and scientists have almost been 'slice of life' portrayals. A Short History of Nearly Everything, which is an attempt at making great scientific ideas and inventions accessible to the common public, is a good case in point. The author Bill Bryson presents them --- in his usual bouncy and blithe-spirited prose --- as relatable vignettes from the lives of great scientists. The Man Who Knew Infinity: A Life of the Genius Ramanujan by Robert Kanigel is also another good example in this category.
To pull this off in an even-more mainstream media like cinema can be a daunting task, but not an impossible one as the 2001 Hollywood movie A Beautiful Mind, on the mathematician John Nash, a Nobel Laureate in Economics, showed us. An esoteric idea like Game Theory was the subject of this moving and interesting movie, an Oscar award winning one at that.
Vivek’s adroit approach
Vivek Agnihotri takes this path successfully in the initial parts of The Vaccine War. And the lonely pursuit in high-end medicine becomes an engaging and understandable human endeavour.
Nana Patekar plays Dr Bhargava, the Director General of the ICMR, while Pallavi Joshi portrays Dr Priya Abraham, the chief of NIV. Both acquit themselves with a believable performance. But this film is not about acting but more about the story. All real and resonant.
Agnihotri further shows that he is an adroit movie-maker by choosing to focus on the women power behind the vaccine. The characters of Nivedita Gupta (Girija Oak) and Dr Pragya Yadav (Nivedita Bhattacharya) add an extra layer of interest as they battle to balance between the demands of recondite science and the pulls of every-day family life as a homemaker.
These are portions that are truly elevating (and entertaining). And these are the parts that truly matter in the breakthrough for Covaxin, an Indian effort worthy of celebration. And Agnihotri does well to latch on to it.
Movies like Mission Mangal and Rocketry, the web series Rocket Boys and now The Vaccine War, clearly establish that science and scientific quests can indeed be subjects for good cinema in the Indian context too. And the real message is: The way to good science can be through, well, good art.
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