Covaxin and the world’s vaccine maker

We have finally started referring to the COVID-19 pandemic in the past tense. Now is the perfect time to look back on the carnage, reflect on the tribulations, and celebrate the triumphs. One of humanity’s greatest achievements during these trying times was the development of COVID-19 vaccines, which were the fastest created in human history. India, home to the world’s largest vaccine maker, was at the forefront of this effort, alongside a handful of other nations. With a single-minded focus on India’s achievements during the war against COVID, director Vivek Agnihotri’s The Vaccine War – A True Story, highlights the creation of Covaxin, India’s homegrown vaccine against the coronavirus.

Covaxin was developed by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) in collaboration with the National Institute of Virology (NIV) and Krishna Ella’s Bharat Biotech

Directed by Vivek Agnihotri and produced by his wife and actor Pallavi Joshi, The Vaccine War stars Nana Patekar, Anupam Kher, Girija Oak, Raima Sen, Nivedita Bhattacharya, Mohan Kapur, Sapthami Gowda, and Joshi herself.

The Vaccine War is set for a worldwide release on September 28, 2023.

On August 20, the makers held a pre-release screening of the movie at Cinemark, Union City, organized by the Indo-American Community Federation (IACF-USA) led by founder Jeevan Zutshi and his wife Usha. It was a packed auditorium. Present at the premiere was the director-producer duo along with Lily Mei, mayor of Fremont, Carmen Montano, mayor of Milpitas, and Benjamin Yee, planning commissioner of Fremont. On the occasion, Sewa International USA, a nonprofit organization, was felicitated for their disaster relief efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The Vaccine War is no Kashmir Files 

This image shows actor-producer Pallavi Joshi, wearing a sari, and director Vivek Agnihotri (in a shirt and pants and holding a mike). (Photo credit: Ashwini Gangal).
Actor-producer Pallavi Joshi and director Vivek Agnihotri interact with the audience at the pre-release screening of “The Vaccine War: A True Story”, at Cinemark, Union City. (Photo credit: Ashwini Gangal).

The Vaccine War is based on a book titled Going Viral – The Making of Covaxin: The Inside Story written by Dr. Balram Bhargava, former director general of the ICMR, played with panache by Nana Patekar in the film. 

This film comes on the heels of The Kashmir Files (2022), a politically polarizing movie about the exodus of Hindus from Kashmir in 1990, also directed by Agnihotri and co-produced by Joshi. 

In the latest offering from the actor-director duo, Joshi plays Dr. Priya Abraham, director of the NIV. When asked whether the atmosphere on set mirrored the grim reality it was portraying, Joshi told India Currents, “No, not at all. In fact, we had a lot of fun while filming, because it’s such a great story to tell. We all met the scientists after they had made the vaccine, so we saw their triumph; we saw them as happy people. So, we didn’t carry that kind of baggage. It wasn’t a tragedy like the Kashmiri Pandits’ story. This was something to be celebrated. We’re all professionals at the end of the day. When there was crying involved, we did cry, but that was in front of the camera.”

The most challenging part of the shoot, said Joshi, was portraying someone who is still alive  (NIV’s Dr. Abraham). “Playing Kasturba Gandhi (in Shyam Benegal’s 1996 movie The Making of the Mahatma) was relatively easy for me because that’s an old chapter of history and you can add certain nuances of your own to the character. But here, I was portraying somebody who had finished doing a job just two years ago,” she said. “We can’t take cinematic liberties with anything. We had to show them (the scientists) the film and get their approval after we finished shooting it this January.”

Victory in the face of death 

During the deadly Delta wave in 2021, the world saw the socio-religious and political warts of Indian society. The media ran stories on the country’s desperate fight for oxygen, and photos of our mass cremations are as unforgettable as the grim face of Dr. Tedros Ghebreyesus, director general of the World Health Organization (WHO), on television. 

But there’s another side to the story. At the peak of its vaccine drive, India was vaccinating anywhere between 10 million to 25 million people a day. That’s at least twice the population of New Zealand! 

By highlighting India’s achievements during the pandemic, this film will do a lot for the soft power of India today. Do you, for example, recall that India was the fifth country in the world to successfully isolate the COVID-19 virus strain in the lab? 

This film is best seen through a lens unfogged by political biases or misgiving about Agnihotri’s much-debated The Kashmir Files. Watch it because, amidst the drama of big pharma, politics, and the media infodemic, the victory of India’s brilliant scientific community is worth celebrating.

YouTube video

Ashwini Gangal is a fiction writer based in San Francisco, who has published stories and poems in literary magazines in the UK and Croatia.