Readers Write In #632: The Vaccine War: Potential of a Great Medical Drama Cut Short by Somewhat Less Focused Third Act

By Vishnu Mahesh Sharma

Just before the intermission, in Vivek Agnihotri’s ‘The Vaccine War’, on a while board with a black color marker, a prominent scientist writes “Only science can win this war.” Immediately after this ‘Nasadiya Sukta’ is heard in the background. On one hand this signifies and symbolizes confluence of scientific aptitude and spirituality and on the other hand it serves another purpose. This recitation of the ‘Sukta’ is followed by nationwide lockdown imageries. The world is completely inside, only silence and emptiness are outside. What other words could have appropriated and captured the essence of this never-seen-before phenomenon where everything is there but physically so disconnected that the entire world is forced to live and operate virtually. Some may sense something in nothingness and others may sense nothingness in things.

This thoughtful use of ‘Nasadiya Sukta’ is not the only thing first rate in the film. There are many emotional beats that the story gets right. A simple thank you, that too a vicarious one, is built up and paid off with such a relatability factor that eyes moist. We witness the personal and the professional lives of our scientists getting intertwined and overlapped. As the stakes rise, personal lives vanish, both from the screen and the lives of our heroes.

There are moments of some old Hindi cinema writing that feel very organic. For instance, in a secured biosphere where kids and infants are not allowed, a woman scientist brings her newly born baby (as the baby must be breastfed) with her. When her superior asks her the baby’s name, the mother replies – ‘Aasha’. We see that this is a newly born hope in this scientist community.

Agnihotri, to some extent, treats the screenplay as an underdog story. Thus, there are unforeseen and formidable challenges, both natural and political. However, the director, at times, cleverly deviates from the underdog template. Which results in situations where small victories are not celebrated and are undermined by constant reminder of the final goal. These reminders are conveyed, almost ruthlessly, by the person at the helm, Dr. Balram Bhargava (Nana Patekar). Nana plays the character with such a wonderful balance of empathy and apathy that we peek into his mind and see both the single mindedness of a man on a mission and a man with a vision. Nonetheless, the instances where the screenplay decides to be faithful to the underdog template, also pull the right strings.

Case in point a gut-wrenching conversation between three women scientists who have been facing continuous failures with their experiments and processes. One of them is so low that she is on the verge of giving hope. Then, as expected, the spirits are lifted by another team member and her consolation and assurance. The dialogue here is not a rousing speech but simplicity mixed with compassion that underlines capability of each other and that of science. The scene almost whispers, with confidence and hope, that together we all will save the world.

The vaccine development is, rightly, treated as a teamwork. This opens a scope of discord and dissent within the team. Hence, at one moment, in the film, Dr. Bhargava, like an army general, orders his soldier-scientists to focus only on the eye of the fish (machhali ki aankh). He asks them to do what is in their hands and do it with full commitment. In a masala-myth setting this eye-of-the-fish analogy could have ended then and there but here we are in a realistic setting. Thus, the analogy echoes in a moving and vulnerable sequence. This time a soldier confronts his general and questions the general if he is losing the optimistic vision. After witnessing her master in a state of utter despair, the pupil asks “yahithi app ki machhali ki aankh?”

With that echo, I think I have reached around 2/3 of the write up and with that the end of all that is good about the movie. The film also progressed on similar lines. After a grade production design, use of silence (that is so much in line with the subject the film deals with), authentic dialogues and some emotionally impactful dramatic sequences, the film leaves a lot to desire. This wonderful set up of 2/3 of the film should have paid better in the last 1/3 of the film.

The screenplay really struggles to hold its own from pre-climax to climax. The urgency of vaccine development is bound to go once the vaccine is developed, however, with that goes away the real and scientific spirit of the film. In these portions it gets entangled with the war of narratives. There is a constant and unnecessarily conscious effort to find a villain. This expedition to find a villain serves okay and remains secondary in the initial parts of the film but after a point it becomes monotonous. Here onwards, the proceedings are stuffed more with news reels and newspaper cuttings and less with cinematic sincerity observed earlier. Thus, the intensity dips, writing meanders and character integrity is compromised.

The cast ensemble tries hard so that we can buy in these stretched out portions, but the writing colossally refuses to complement their efforts. Though the energy is somewhat lifted in the climactic showdown which is, indeed, treated as good vs evil on the lines of a ‘Devasura Sangram’ where information and misinformation are weapons. However, even this tussle overstays its welcome. After reaching a high it goes a bit too far to keep the interest alive.

All this is very unfortunate as the film starts off as a war between pandemic and science but tries to conclude a war of media trials and narratives. In its obsession to find a strong villain to take down, the last 20-25 minutes corrupt the sanctity of the source material that inherently has a time ticking urgency, against-all-odds sentiment and a genuine story of human victory.

Having said that, the last 10 minutes of the drama, somewhat, redeems this fall by celebrating the true architects of this victory i.e., women scientists and their sacrifices. We see the vanished private lives of these characters reappearing better, stronger, happier and more colorful. Had the film listened to its own character’s advice to focus on “machhali ki aankh”, it would have been one of the best medical dramas to come out of Hindi films. But the media meandering cuts that feat short. As a result, we have to satisfy ourselves with a decent tribute to our researchers and scientists. It is, surely, not an opportunity but, surlier, a potential less realized.

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