Director: Abhay Pannu
Runtime: 480 Minutes
Cast: Jim Sarbh, Ishwak Singh
It’s an act of staggering ambition and honesty, mainly considering that you won’t easily find its immediate equivalent from Indian television. It is a biopic, yes; Make that two, actually. But from a field that, unlike sport or offense, does not immediately lend itself to obvious play, as it were. We’re talking science, of course.
Most mainstream shows/movies on that subject, you’ll see, involve throwing jargon at fast-paced people, to set the mind working at the speed of thought. That is, when they are not flying stuff during an experiment.
Here’s just a little of it. To think about it, two specific words from this show that I immediately remember – predestination, and Nash equilibrium – are more related to theology and economics respectively.
It’s also fair to say that the Rocket Boys are more about institution-building than science. To assess its relevance, suffice it to know, at least two major research campuses that continue to make Indian science proud are within 30 km of Mumbai from where I am writing this – Bhabha Atomic Research Center (BARC), and Tate Institute of India Fundamental Research (TIFR).
The existence of both is due to the critical theorist Homi J. Bhabha. This is his story. Along with Vikram Sarabhai, who founded India’s space programme, known as the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO).
Bhabha and Sarabhai are, according to this series, the “mad scientists” in Jawaharlal Nehru’s inner circle. Which, in turn, swore a modern, scientific temper, to an independent republic he founded with committed compatriots, after the British left.
So in a way it is also the story of Nehru and modern India. And yet, the filmmakers behind the series from this period, with subtle but high-class production design, don’t seem too overwhelmed with the task at hand.
There’s a lot of romance here, a lot of intrigue elsewhere, even some clock ticking drama, and generally a lightness of touch, overall. Without disregarding the wisdom of the general audience, which is a superpower in itself.
What puts the show at the fore? A certain kind of credibility, as it charts the story of two remarkably remarkable men spanning nearly two and a half decades – between the start of WWII (1940) and the end of the India-China War (1962). That is to say, at least the events/anecdotes/characters in the script don’t look like they have been thoroughly researched from WhatsApp University.
Whether it was the temperamental scientist Bhabha – so close to Nehru that he called him brother, and treated him as an equal – bringing truckloads of coal to a public reception to explain the comparative value of uranium to India’s first PM. After this, the party plays the violin, while Nehru plays the piano.
Or the presence of a CIA agent/source/handler in the apex area of the Atomic Energy Commission of India for that matter. And indeed the cut-throat rivalry between Bhabha and Raza Mehdi (Dibyendu Bhattacharya), a leading scientific institute builder from Calcutta.
To be fair, it’s not like the audience member (like me) knows anyone better. Although we all have seen the image of the rocket equipment carrying bullock carts from back in the day, but only as a glimpse of how ISRO got started. An essential element of Sarabhai’s story.
We also know that the China War dealt a major blow to India and to Nehru personally – the contrary was often attributed to the poor counsel of the then Defense Minister (VK Krishna Menon). which we also see. While a debate rages on over whether India should arm itself as a nuclear power. Bhabha was at the center of that debate.
These are important events. Ideally, left to itself, Rocket Boys should, in the singular, be a Bhabha biopic alone – a far more compelling biopic. I’m guessing that the material may be enough for just one feature film, and that’s a series. It is also known how the first season ends, given that there will be a second.
In terms of work, Sarabhai is, for the most part, mainly involved in textile technology, engrossed in his family business in Ahmedabad. The space mission becomes his much later.
A reporter asks APJ Abdul Kalam (Arjuna Radhakrishnan), a young scientist who is given the normal life of Sarabhai, if this is the case: “Jack of all trades. Master of none.” Kalam corrects the journalist by quoting the wholly popular phrase that very few do: “Often, it is better to be master of none.” Beautiful!
Exceptionally tame, the calm Ishwak Singh plays the role of Sarabhai. Which is in stark contrast to the passionate livewire ‘Bawa’ Bhabha, who is charming-aggressive and whole-hearted. Definitely in love, but not emotionally committed to a girl with a “Parsi-est name”, Parwana Irani, who is Saba Azad, who reminds me of Ratna Pathak Shah, to some extent!
The gentleman who plays Bhabha, himself a Bombay institution we are talking about – lit up the screen in pretty much every scene, is actor Jim Sarbh. The series has dropped on SonyLIV, which delivered some of the best Indian shows of 2021, without paying much attention, due to the reach of the platform, I guess – Tababar, Gullak 2, Potluck (Even the lesser known Avroha, 2020) From) .
Rocket Boys is right up there with SonyLIV’s scam 1992 (2020). We’ve passed New Year’s resolutions, but I think you should definitely join this gym!