Historical events and personages share space with a liberal sprinkling of imagined situations and characters in Rocket Boys, an engaging and occasionally rousing eight-episode SonyLIV series that traces the lives and times of Homi Bhabha and Vikram Sarabhai, progenitors of India’s nuclear and space programmes respectively.
Scripted and directed by debutant Abhay Pannu and filmed (by cinematographer Harshvir Oberai) principally in warm, subdued light emanating from natural sources and lamps that convey the show’s period ambience, Rocket Boys steers clear of deification, a snag that bedevils present-day Bollywood biographical dramas.
The series etches out the distinct personalities of the two physicists, who were close friends since their days at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore during the tumultuous World War II years. It puts in perspective the preeminent place they came to occupy in the scientific community of a newly-independent India.
Rocket Boys, created by Nikkhil Advani and produced by Roy Kaur Films and Emmay Entertainment, provides a close look at the breakthroughs that Bhabha and Sarabhai made while grappling with a slew of challenges on the emotional and professional fronts. The show is propelled by two strong and steady lead performances.
While narrating the individual stories of Bhabha (Jim Sarbh) and Sarabhai (Ishwak Singh) and their associates, who helped free India leapfrog into the modern era within the first 15 years of its existence, Rocket Boys contextualizes the post-Independence priorities and plans steered by a progressive, visionary leader who believed in the power of science to transform lives.
The series spans two decades and a bit – from the start of the Quit India Movement in the early 1940s to the India’s entry into the space age in the early 1960s – and tracks history in the making at a time when emphasis on a scientific temper had not been eclipsed by vacuous slogans.
The two vivid portraits that Rocket Boys paints establish that Bhabha and the younger-by-a-decade Sarabhai, both iconic institution builders, have little in common temperamentally besides their passion for perfection. They clash frequently on subjects they hold dear. The points of collision, in a way, point to the two men’s backgrounds and worldviews.
Bhabha, suave and voluble son of a successful Bombay lawyer, is a driven lone ranger with wide-ranging cultural interests. Nuclear science is what excites him the most, but he also plays the violin, plays cricket and engages in other artistic pursuits. Always togged up in natty suits, he loves his drinks.
In short, Homi J. Bhabha is a man about town not averse to pushing his ideas with vehemence. (For trivia geeks, the scientist’s extra-curricular activities allow for a reference to the turn-of-the-century fast bowler M.E. Pavri, who was one of India’s earliest cricket stars and a Bhabha family friend).
In contrast, Sarabhai, son of a Gandhian industrialist who owned the biggest mills in Ahmedabad and was close to Nehru, is a staid, unassuming, nerdy man of science who dons simple kurtas and pajamas. He dreams of sending a rocket into space. “I’ll do this for my country one day,” he says. In a later scene, Sarabhai goes a step further and asserts that the sky isn’t the limit, it is only the beginning. Without putting too fine a point on it, Rocket Boys also plays up the contrast between the relationships that Bhabha and Sarabhai have with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru (Rajit Kapur). Bhabha’s equations with Nehru are personal. Sarabhai, despite his family’s proximity to Nehru (which isn’t brought out by the series) keeps his interactions largely formal.
Rocket Boys, which opens with an early morning meeting of scientists, projects Bhabha as a man in a hurry. Sarabhai is a pacifist who counsels circumspection. Bhabha proposes that India make its first ‘atom bomb’ in response to China’s aggression on the eastern front in 1962. He sees nuclear arms as a deterrent.
Sarabhai opposes the suggestion. He asks Bhabha: “How can you in good conscience do this?” This ruthlessness isn’t the solution, he says. “We need to give diplomacy a chance. We must de-escalate.” Through the remainder of Rocket Boys, the two strong-willed, clear-headed men wend their way towards the same goal – they want to put India on par with the rest of the world – using dissimilar routes and methods. Their differences give the show some of its most important dramatic flashpoints.
Rocket Boys also brings out the respect that the two men have for each other. Sarabhai notes that Bhabha, with his interest and competence in music, performance and art, is “truly a Renaissance man”. The latter loses no opportunity to work with the latter. “You be my conscience,” Bhabha says to Sarabhai at one point.
The script is lively enough to arouse and sustain audience interest. It captures an eventful period of Indian history seen through the lens of the personal and professional battles that the two scientists had to wage on the way to realizing their dreams.
While it isn’t instantly fissile material primed to generate heat and energy – restraint is its watchword – the series is in the main a watchable guided tour through an era of churn that saw the creation of several path-breaking research institutes that altered India’s science landscape and continue to this day to yield dividends.
Rocket Boys peppers the big-picture canvas with gentle, intimate touches that offer glimpses the human side of the two iconic physicists as they who spearhead the nation’s plan to acquire long-term energy independence through nuclear power.
The streak of idealism that drives Bhabha and Sarabhai assumes a nationalistic edge when the former gives an English official a mouthful at a party and, after being punched viciously in the face, cocks a snook at the imperial rulers with a daring act that lands him and Sarabhai in a court of law.
Plenty of scientific terminology is expectedly bandied about all through Rocket Boys, but that does not get in the way of the underscoring of the emotional and mental turmoil that Bhabha and Sarabhai faced as they cut through politics and red tape to achieve their goals.
As they pursue their plans, they have to contend with rivals within the Indian scientific fraternity led by a fictional nuclear physicist (Dibyendu Bhattacharya in an impactful supporting role) who feels he deserves more and the ill-disposed US intelligence set-up (this facet of the story does the groundwork for another season of Rocket Boys).
On the personal front, both men encounter ups and downs. These passages constitute a significant part of the story. The untimely death of his lawyer father – it coincides with the dropping of an atom bomb on Hiroshima that sparks understandable, widespread anti-nuclear sentiment – pushes Bhabha to the brink.
Bhabha develops a bond with a young lawyer named Parvana ‘Pipsy’ Irani (Saba Azad, who steals many a scene) – one of the several fictive figures in the show – but is so immersed in his work that he struggles to give the lady the attention she craves and deserves.
Sarabhai falls in love and marries dancer Mrinalini Sarabhai nee Swaminathan (Regina Cassandra, who is terrific), who performs at a fund-raiser the two scientists organize at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore in the early 1940s after a British donor withdraws his financial patronage of the IISC’s cosmic ray research unit.
The two 1940s women are no pushovers. Mrinalini, a dancer married into a business family, lets nothing deflect her from her ambition to start a dance academy – the well-written scenes between her and her husband are some of the high points of the series. Pipsy, on her part, does not shy away from speaking her mind when it matters.
The story is peopled by both real individuals – besides Nehru, C.V. Raman (Karthik Srinivasan), a young A.P.J. Abdul Kalam (Arjun Radhakrishnan) and Indira Gandhi (Charu Shankar) – and those that are fictional, notably a close Homi Bhabha associate (K.C. Shankar) and a journalist (Namit Das), and whose intentions take time to fully reveal themselves.
Rocket Boys gets the science of blending fact and fiction absolutely right and delivers a viewing experience that is at a marked remove from what all the binge-worthy generic shows out there tend to yield. Highly recommended.