The Vaccine War
Thank God It Is Friday and it finally feels like a weekend that will require a total flex! And with the theatrical releases pouring in from yesterday, I decided to venture out and watch the new Hindi film The Vaccine War which is directed by Vivek Agnihotri. The name of the director is enough to create a buzz – positive and negative, a filmmaker that doesn’t hold back in driving home his point whether you like it or not. I feel his earlier films were quite generic much like Anubhav Sinha, only to finally find his voice and footing with a film like Buddha In A Traffic Jam. His later works of The Tashkent Files and in particular, The Kashmir Files were stories driven with conviction, and I had immensely appreciated both films specifically on the conviction part! And so I was quite curious going into The Vaccine War.
The Covid-19 pandemic is still fresh in our minds, simply with respect to the havoc that it had caused with respect to the lives of the people. The period of the twin lockdowns would perhaps be the darkest period in the history of mankind, atleast for our generation. Several lives were lost even while some of us had the privilege of being restricted in our homes. The amount of loss that humanity may have faced even with respect to the infrastructure is appaling and almost scary, if I were to think of the future if a new pandemic would arrive(hope it doesn’t). The bottom line is that the pandemic era is still a very recent phenomenon and while humanity has come out of it(thank you to the authorities and everyone involved), the void remains fresh. And because Vivek Agnihotri was involved with The Vaccine War, I was curious on what would be the foundation of his film(even that I was expecting a political outlook to it). So then does The Vaccine War manage to impress, lets find out.
Story & Screenplay
Based on a novel Going Viral, The Vaccine War follows the story of the scientists from ICMR and NIV who collectively help in creating a vaccine against all odds. The major problem that I had with the story was that because it was dealing with such a relevant issue, the prerogative should have been to tell a human tale of defiance and also celebrate the achievements of the scientists who worked day and night for the vaccine to be created. Instead, the focus here is on the politics around it which I kind of did not appreciate given the amount of loss that the prople globally had to undergo during the pandemic. The screenplay standing at a overwhelming runtime of 160 minutes often drags at places even as the makers might have been confused with its narrative style, on whether to opt for a documentary route or a political route.
The drama opens in the pandemic era, with a couple of cops stopping a scientist and asking him to return home, after punishing him. The scientist obliges, and I think the purpose of the makers was to showcase the hardships of the scientists who were then developing the vaccine. However, this scene doesn’t quite drive the purpose that it is set out to achieve. Soon, you are introduced to the principal characters from the ICMR and the NIV, who have been notified of a potential virus doing the rounds internationally. There is a China reference too and how all of it could be a part of bio-warfare. But to my surprise, the writers did not choose to take this very relevant point ahead. The focus in the first half was the process of creating a vaccine, but it did turn out to be rather half-hearted with the process.
The proceedings are drousy in what seemed like a film written in reverse engineering. This was always a political film with strong political undertones, which is absolutely fine, but my issue was that in getting from point A to point B, you compromised on the journey that the scientists did undergo while not quite choosing to focus on their massive achievements. The issue was with the characterization of the protagonists who weren’t well developed at all. For instance, I didn’t know what people they were outside the environment that they worked in. The focus should have been on their struggles in their personal lives which would have connected well with the viewers. Surprisingly, the drama quickly went from one event to another without showcasing the struggles that the scientists may have had to undergo.
There is a strong opinion regarding the media and particularly one individual who has been vilified. I really did not have an issue with that, but the main issue here was the ‘Us Vs Them’ narrative that just didn’t add up. The characters were either black or white and there was a clear line drawn between the two. What I wished for was characters in the grey zone, dealing with their own vulnerability with respect to their own insecurities and the higher officials. This is where the conviction angles comes in. In The Kashmir Files, the character of Darshan Kumaar was finding his feet, not knowing what is true or a false agenda(strictly from a story point of view and not necessarily my thoughts). This until the very end, he understands the circus around him. But no such aspect is represented through any of the characters here.
The pandemic did lead to a huge loss, even personally speaking wherein I had lost a few family members and friends. But that entire segment of the second wave and the subsequent loss of lives formed barely 5 minutes of the duration. The writers were more keen on driving the political aspect of the vaccine whereas in reality, the questions should have been around the human angle of it. Some of the claims of the authorities being proactive seems hard to digest given that people had died due to lack of oxygen(the worst way anyone could die). These pertinent questions were ignored leading up to the final act which was fairly rousing(fairly because I was never connected with the characters and so the emotions didn’t quite hit home) with the arguments and rebuttal in store. But again the ideology of ‘No questions to be asked’ didn’t quite sit well with me, something which is important for democracy to thrive(let alone the agenda on either sides). That said, taking nothing away from the massive achievement of our scientists(particularly women scientists) and the health workers along with the authorities that did save many lives. I just wished the screenplay was a celebration of that as opposed to arguing at a tangent.
Dialogues, Music & Direction
The dialogues are conversational but not as engaging as they ought to have been. But there are a few gems along with the way. The music and BGM are adequate. The cinematography is good particularly the portions involving animals. The editing ought to have been crisper as there was a major lag in the middle. Director Vivek Ranjan Agnihotri misses the mark here. I am happy that he has found his voice with respect to his films but to ignore the human angle of a very recent phenomena was simply unacceptable. The direction lacked conviction(which was prevalent in his previous works) and it almost felt like the director went on a tangent at the end, whereas the subject was relevant and he could have chosen any human issues or if a political angle was required, then he could have introduced geo-politics in the narrative by making that the foundation of the film.
The performances are outstanding by the ensemble cast. Anupam Kher, Mohan Kapur and Sapthami Gowda have their moments to shine. Nivedita Bhattacharya as Pragya is first rate and is so well restrained in her character. Girija Oak as Nivedita is assertive and there is a level of calmness to her performance. Raima Sen as Rohini is fabulous to watch and she does a terrific job. Pallavi Joshi as Priya is top notch and she did try to present her vulnerabilities quite well(despite the script not supporting it). Nana Patekar as Bhargava is outstanding to the core, being understated throughout, only to erupt in the final act. He was incredible to witness in a towering performance.
The Vaccine War is a drowsy representation of a very relevant event that completely misses the human angle to the tale. Available in a theatre near you.