On Agnihotri’s Covaxin film, defamation, and false bravery

Vivek Agnihotri’s next film, The Vaccine War, is set to be released on September 28. It is purportedly about the making of Covaxin, the COVID-19 vaccine made by Bharat Biotech, and claims to be based on real events. Based on watching the film’s trailer and snippets shared on Twitter, I can confidently state that while the basis of the film’s narrative may or may not be true, the narrative itself is not. The film’s principal antagonist appears to be a character named Rohini Singh Dhulia, played by Raima Sen, who is the science editor of a news organisation called The Daily Wire. Agnihotri has said that this character is based on his ‘research’ on the journalism of The Wire during, and about, the pandemic, presumably at the time of and immediately following the DCGI’s approval for Covaxin. Agnihotri and his followers on Twitter have also gone after science journalist Priyanka Pulla, who wrote many articles in this period for The Wire. At the time, I was the science editor of The Wire. Dhulia appears to have lovely lines in the film like “India can’t do this” and “the government will fail”, the latter uttered with visible glee.

It has been terribly disappointing to see senior ICMR scientists promoting the film as well as the film (according to the trailer, at least) confidently retaining the name of Balram Bhargava for the character as well; for the uninitiated, Bhargava was the ICMR director-general during the pandemic. (One of his aides also has make-up strongly resembling Raman Gangakhedkar.) In Pulla’s words, “the political capture of this institution is complete”. The film has also been endorsed by Sudha Murthy and received a tone-deaf assessment by film critic Baradwaj Rangan, among other similar displays of support. One thing that caught my eye is that the film also retains the ICMR logo, logotype, and tagline as is (see screenshot below from the trailer).

Source: YouTube

The logo appears on the right of the screen as well as at the top-left, together with the name of NIV, the government facility that provided the viral material for and helped developed Covaxin. This is notable: AltBalaji, the producer of the TV show M.O.M. – The Women Behind Mission Mangal, was prevented from showing ISRO’s rockets as is because the show’s narrative was a fictionalised version of real events. A statement from AltBalaji to The Wire Science at the time, in 2019, when I asked why the show’s posters showed the Russian Soyuz rocket and the NASA Space Shuttle instead of the PSLV and the GSLV, said it was “legally bound not to use actual names or images of the people, objects or agencies involved”. I don’t know if the 2019 film Mission Mangal was bound by similar terms: its trailer shows a rocket very much resembling the GSLV Mk III (now called LVM-3) sporting the letters “S R O”, instead of “I S R O” ; the corresponding Hindi letters “स” and “रो”; and a different logo below the letters “G S L V” instead of the first “I” (screenshot below). GSLV is still the official designation of the launch vehicle, and a step further from what the TV show was allowed. And while the film also claims to be based on real events, its narrative is also fictionalised (read my review and fact-check).

Source: YouTube

Yet ICMR’s representation in The Vaccine War pulls no punches: its director-general at the time is represented by name and all its trademark assets are on display. It would seem the audience is to believe that they’re receiving a documentarian’s view of real events at ICMR. The film has destroyed the differences between being based on a true story and building on that to fictionalise for dramatic purposes. Perhaps more importantly: while AltBalaji was “legally bound” to not use official ISRO imagery, including those of the rockets, because it presented a fiction, The Vaccine War has been freed of the same legal obligation even though it seems to be operating on the same terms. This to me is my chief symptom of ICMR’s political capture.

Of course, that Agnihotri is making a film based on a ‘story’ that might include a matter that is sub judice is also problematic. As you may know, Bharat Biotech filed a defamation case against the Foundation for Independent Journalism in early 2022; this foundation publishes The Wire and The Wire Science. I’m a defendant in the case, as are fellow journalists and science communicators Priyanka Pulla, Neeta Sanghi, Jammi Nagaraj Rao, and Banjot Kaur, among others. But while The Wire is fighting the case, it will be hard to say before watching The Vaccine War as to whether the film actually treads on forbidden ground. I’m also not familiar with the freedoms that filmmakers do and don’t have in Indian law (and the extent to which the law maps to common sense and intuition). That said, while we’re on the topic of the film, the vaccine, defamation, and the law, I’d like to highlight something important.

In 2022, Bharat Biotech sought and received an ex parte injunction from a Telangana court against the allegedly offending articles published by The Wire and The Wire Science, and had them forcibly taken down. The court also prevented the co-defendants from publishing articles on Covaxin going forward and filed a civil defamation case, seeking Rs 100 crore in damages. As the legal proceedings got underway, I started to speak to lawyers and other journalists about implications of the orders, whether specific actions are disallowed on my part, and the way courts deal with such matters – and discovered something akin to a labyrinth that’s also a minefield. There’s a lot to learn. While the law may be clear about something, how a contention winds its way through the judicial system is both barely organised and uncodified. Rahul Gandhi’s own defamation case threw informative light on the role of judges’ discretion and the possibility of a jail term upon conviction, albeit for the criminal variety of the case.

The thing I resented the most, on the part of sympathetic lawyers, legal scholars, and journalists alike, is the view that it’s the mark of a good journalist to face down a defamation case in their career. Whatever its origins, this belief’s time is up in a period when defamation cases are being filed at the drop of a hat. It’s no longer a specific mark of good journalism. Like The Wire, I and my co-defendants stand by the articles we wrote and published, but it remains good journalism irrespective of whether it has also been accused of defamation.

Second, the process is the punishment, as the adage goes, yet by valorising the presence of a defamation case in a journalist’s record, it seeks to downplay the effects of the process itself. These effects include the inherent uncertainty; the unfamiliar procedures, documentation, and their contents and purposes; the travelling, especially to small towns, and planning ahead (taking time off work, availability of food, access to clean bathrooms, local transport, etc.); the obscure rules of conduct within courtrooms and the varying zeal with which they’re implemented; the variety and thus intractability of options for legal succour; and the stress, expenses, and the anxiety. So please, thanks for your help, but spare me the BS of how I’m officially a good journalist.