India’s COVID war: Discovery documentary sheds light on pandemic strife
A nation battles an unseen enemy in a 54-minute documentary on Discovery Plus. Here’s how it was made
A month after the viral outbreak in China, India reported its first COVID-19 case on January 30. By June, that number had reached the 2,00,000 mark (it stands at over 36 lakh cases now). The ordeal of the interim months, as well as the institutional nightmare that followed, has been captured in the Discovery Plus documentary, COVID-19: India’s War Against The Virus. The 54-minute doc parallels the global timeline of the virus with ground efforts in the country. It highlights the response of central and state agencies in dealing with the pandemic. While focusing on government measures, the documentary also incorporates the larger picture, from the plight of migrants to the scramble for vaccine development.
“We did not want to do a half-baked, self-congratulatory story,” says Sai Abhishek, Director – Content, Factual & Lifestyle Entertainment at South Asia Discovery. “We wanted to tell the Indian story in all its complexities and bring new insights.”
The team at Discovery started tracking the pandemic in February. They had previously covered calamities like the Kerala floods and the 2015 Nepal earthquakes. However, the unprecedented nature of the outbreak demanded a fresh approach. A crew was put on ground in March, weeks before the first nationwide lockdown was announced on March 24. The documentary begins with a dramatised account of India’s patient zero: a 20-year-old medical student who flew down from Wuhan to Kerala and was diagnosed with the coronavirus. “It took a couple of months to get her to come on camera. It was a sensitive story so we changed her name,” says Sai, whose team comprised a mix of in-house producers, cameramen, local stringers, and journalists.
The interviewees featured in the doc include, amongst others, Union Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan, Serum Institute of India President Adar Poonawalla, and Microsoft co-founder and billionaire Bill Gates. Gates, who is the co-chair and trustee of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, expresses his faith in the Indian pharmaceutical industry in producing Covid-19 vaccines. He had previously interacted with Prime Minister Narendra Modi on global innovations and praised India’s handling of the situation. “Bill is one of my childhood heroes and I went on a wild goose chase to get him on board,” Sai shares. “We set up a small camera at his residence and he patiently answered all our questions.”
Elsewhere, experts, frontline workers, and patients share their perspectives on the crisis. Economist Arun Kumar holds forth on the migrant situation and the economic fallout of the lockdown. Journalist Sanket Upadhyay points out the ‘communal overtone’ adopted by the media in covering the Tablighi Jamaat issue. COVID-survivors Rita Malhotra and her husband recall their difficulty in securing urgent medical care. Dilip Taram, a factory worker in New Delhi, details the horror of leaving his home and putting up at a night shelter. “At Discovery, we generally don’t do political documentaries,” Sai says. “When it came to the migrant situation, we did look at it carefully as a human story. While we’ve shown the good (relief) work being done, we’ve also kept some headlines for the viewers to ponder that perhaps this was not the best way to deal with the crisis.”
The documentary also spotlights citizen heroes like drone-maker Arpita Priyadarshini and actor Sonu Sood. It was important to show the tech and innovation capabilities of India, Sai says, as well as “the good Samaritans silently doing their part.”
Streaming on the Discovery Plus app, the documentary is available in seven languages. The Hindi and Tamil voice-overs are done by Manoj Bajpayee and Gautam Menon, respectively. This is the first time that Gautam has narrated a documentary. “I wanted to make sure the narration felt personal,” the actor-filmmaker shares. “I have actually said in the Tamil version 'I, Gautham Vasudev Menon, am going to tell you how we handle this war.' It was interesting to get that personal touch and language going.”
So far, Discovery has produced four international documentaries on the coronavirus outbreak. The first in the series, Pandemic: COVID-19, was aired in April. This was their first domestically-produced documentary on the India situation. “I feel good non-fiction, when told dramatically with cinematic elements, can be of great service to the population,” Sai says. “At a time when there’s so much misinformation and fake news, factual documentaries will stand out.”