Category Archives: Film

Nobel Wars

Nobel Wars


In the War with Polio who was the Hero? Salk or Sabin?

I have been following up the Nobel Prizes announced since last week. The surprise that was in store for all of us with regard to the announcement of the Nobel Prize for Literature for Bob Dylan was quite frankly refreshing and exciting.

As I was reading up about some Nobel Prize history, I came across this list of very famous people who deserved the Nobel Prize, but who weren’t awarded one. On that list was Gandhi as anticipated as well as my main man, Physicist Stephen Hawking. One name that  was expected and yet which irked me the most was that of Jonas Salk, the “pioneering scientist” who is hailed in popular American folklore for having “invented” the Polio vaccine and for having virtually “eradicated” the dreaded polio. He was nominated thrice – in 1954, 1956 and the late 60s. Some have argued that he should have at least got the Nobel Prize for Peace for his contribution for his pioneering work in having removed the fear of the disease that was crippling countless children across America in the 20s through 50s. How can a National Hero be snubbed?

As it happens, the real story is a very complex. Very few talk about Albert Sabin who developed the live attenuated polio virus oral drops, the same which is in use in India in our immunisation schedule. It was Sabin’s vaccine that eradicated Polio from the face of the earth except the last 2 countries of Afghanistan and Pakistan now.

Salk and Sabin were bitter enemies who openly disliked each other. Salk was a public relations man with the support of the US President’s March of Dimes initiative and millions of dollars, not to mention the doting press. Salk appeared to be shy, and shunning the media, but he actually craved publicity. When asked by the media, ‘Who owned the patent?”, Salk replied, “ The people do. There is no patent. Do you patent the sun?”

The truth is that Salk could not have patented the Polio vaccine even if he wanted to. He did not invent the vaccine.

Dr. Sven Gard, Professor of Virology at the Karolinska Institute, and member of the Nobel recommendation Committee wrote an 8 page analysis of Salk’s work, in which he concluded that “Salk has not in the development of his methods introduced anything that is principally new, but only exploited discoveries made by others.” He concluded that “Salk’s publications on the poliomyelitis vaccine cannot be considered as Prize worthy”.

Why didn’t Sabin get the Nobel prize? Dr. Sven Gard testified  as an expert in the Sabin polio vaccine trial of Griffin v United States against Sabin. Gard accepted no money for his expert testimony and paid for his own airfare and expenses. In addition Gard told the court that `Salk`s polio vaccine probably caused more cases of polio than it prevented.” Also Gard knew all about the details of the field trials conducted by both Salk and Sabin and how they had manipulated their data to gloss over the safety of the vaccine. That is why neither Sabin or Salk received the Nobel Prize.

The Nobel prize instead went to John Enders, Thomas Weller, and Frederick Robbins in 1954 “for their discovery of the ability of poliomyelitis viruses to grow in cultures of various types of tissue.” This discovery made way for both Salk and Sabin to invent their respective vaccines.

In the late 1960s, Salk, Sabin, Koprowski, and Gard were nominated for the Nobel Prize for poliovirus vaccines. Gard refused to be nominated, because he felt that they did not discover anything new, but only built upon the seminal discoveries of other scientists. This effectively killed the nomination. The developers of the poliovaccine Salk and Sabin were never again seriously considered for a Nobel Prize.

For me Gard is a personal hero who stood for the truth and who had integrity enough to recuse himself from the Nobel prize. Sabin is also a hero. I love his tenacity, passion and ingenuity in sending the vaccines to the Soviet Union and Japan for mass immunisation that gave results when America rejected him and snubbed him. He showed that the Sabin vaccine is indeed the magic bullet. It was his vaccine that finally saved the day and millions of children from permanent disability. It must be mentioned that the later versions of the vaccine are safe and effective.

The story of the Nobel Prize and War against Polio spans 50 years of rivalry and innuendo between three very complicated persons Salk, Sabin and Gard. It would be naive to look at them through the good or bad lenses, as they operated within the space, time, opportunity and necessity continuum of the day with varying consequences. However the lasting legacy is that of Sabin’ without a doubt. Someday I will make a science thriller film with this awesome plot.


Thanga Meengal (Gold Fish)



I watched “Thanga Meengal” last Sunday. I resisted writing my two-pence about it for the whole of last week as I did not want to spoil it for my friends. But I guess I can safely say something about it now.

“Thanga Meengal” means ‘Gold Fish’ in Tamil. It is the story of a 7 or 8 year old little girl who is the apple of her father’s eye. The child comes from a reasonably well-off family, but the father is seen to be a loser, as he does not have a job that fetches him a lot of money. We are told that the father discontinued his studies past high school, and therefore cannot land a well paying job. Finally the father leaves hometown in search of a job, and his travails in raising enough funds in order to get an expensive gift for his daughter form much of the story.

I watched the film with many eyes. I watched it not only with my eyes, but also with my heart and mind and soul. For that is how I see any film. It is not essential that a film has to be logical. It’s not even important that the film has to have a pact with reality. No! It’s all about whether the film can tell a story with honesty. Does the film fundamentally fulfill the need in me to enjoy a story, because I love a good story?! And the story has to hum with my DNA. The cinematography, the take-home message, the actors, are all incidental, not essential to a film. How can I enjoy something if I cannot agree with something at the molecular level?? I don’t think a film maker has to make a film for me or with me on his mind. A film maker need not enter my world. But I need to be able to visit his world and go on a walk with him there on those streets, watching the sights and sounds as we walk. That’s when I fall in love with a film.

Films are like places to me. It’s like a city or town or village that we go on a visit. There are some places we like. We have an emotional connection with them. There are other places that you pledge not to visit again, if you can help it. It is the same with films. They conjure up emotions and memories.

For example, I love Madurai. I love Madurai, because I love the Ayira Fish Curry and Mutton Thala Curry that I ate at Amma Mess on one of my early visits to that wonderful city. I love it for so many other reasons as well, but the taste of the curry just lingers in my mouth, and when I think of Madurai, I cannot but be overwhelmed by the memory of the sensation of taste that flowed over my taste buds on that day. On subsequent visits I did not eat much. But that one trip did it for me. It was love affair with Madurai. Another city that I love is Vizag. I love it for the drive on an early morning as we ascended the Kailashgiri hills with a view of the sea clearly in front of us. The hills and the beach are like sisters living besides each other in unity. That road has become crowded and cluttered now, but for me, that memory is locked in my eye’s viewfinder and I can only think of Vizag with great fondness.

Every film is filled with surprises. Obviously there are so many elements and there is just not one thing that leaves an impression. But it is one thing or two that you carry back with you.

I watched Thanga Meengal as an ordinary film viewer. Like one who is in sync with the 300 other people seated along with me in the Cinema hall that are sharing the movie experience with me, I gasped and exhaled and chuckled at all the places that they did. I loved the film. I believe that this is no ordinary film. It talks about a subject that is not in keeping with the routine song, dance, fight, sentimental hotch-potch that popular Indian cinema commonly represents.

I watched the film wearing the hat of one who was a special child myself and as one who shared a deep and a beautiful relationship with my own father. I also watched the film as a Pediatrician who spent much of my adult life working with and caring for children, most of them vulnerable children from very difficult backgrounds. I was unable to decide whether I liked the film or not. I both loved and hated the relationship that was depicted in the film.

On the one hand we have authoritarian teachers and parents that stifle a child. On the other hand we have parents that overcompensate with overly permissive parenting that does not teach kids about limits and self control. Research shows that both extremes are damaging to a child’s ability to regulate emotions and form healthy relationships as adults. They are prone to mess up later in their life. A father should be able to set fair and clear limits on unacceptable behavior  while allowing choice, and at the same time hearing and respecting the feelings of a child. That’s a healthy balance. That balance was missing in the father-child duo in Thanga Meengal.

Every child has a birth right to being pulled out of a schoolplay/sport; undergo rejection in some measure, and fail. It’s called growing up. There is nothing pathological about it. Parents have to stand by and navigate children through these times, intervening occasionally, instead of feeling defeated and rejected themselves.

I didn’t like the condescending manner in which this father talks to his daughter. If only he had been half as sensitive to his wife as he had been to his daughter, he would have been a better role model as an adult, and I would have loved this character more. I think he was a selfish and confused loser father, who wanted to prove something to himself at the cost of his child. It was more about him, than about his child or family. I think with this film we are going to legitimize the raising of a generation of little girls who will not take no for an answer.

But the film has been going on in loops in my mind all week. Any film that evokes such a strong emotional response is definitely a winner. I wish the makers of the film, including my friend Gautham Vasudev Menon all the best.