A number of shows in recent years have covered the journey of India’s space research, be it Mission Mangal, or MOM, or even Rocketry: The Nambi Effect. But Nikhil Adavani’s Rocket Boys, a SonyLiv Originals’ series, begins at the beginning, with two stalwarts of India’s space research–Father of the Indian space programme, Vikram Sarabhai and Father of the Indian nuclear programme, Homi Bhabha.
Making science cool and accessible
STEM may receive a lot of grants in India and we may consider taking up science in plus 2 a matter of privilege, but we still have woefully less amount of research and number of scientists considering the country’s massive population.
We do need more films, more popular culture visibility of science, beyond the ‘nerdy’ depictions, beyond a superficial ‘science versus humanities’ battle. Rocket Boys is a commendable step in that direction. But best of all, it is not simply a story about science or scientists. It is perhaps the story of India’s Renaissance spirit, or the quest for being self-reliant and self-sufficient. Ishwak Singh, who plays Vikram Sarabhai, tells ThePrint, “It is not just space that is at the heart of the story. It is about the human spirit, through the characters, at a time [when] very few resources were available to us, and they took it upon themselves to change things.”
In a unique blend of science and the everyday, personal and political, fact and fiction, Rocket Boys makes science less elite, more accessible, more awe-inspiring, while being grounded.
Rocket Boys opens with a meeting that would decide the future of India’s atomic power. Raza Mehdi, a fictional scientist, says what has been often said of Nehru’s China stance “Hume pata hai, Nehru ki diplomatic policies sari flop ho chuki. China hum par attack kar chuki hai“, referring to China’s attack on India in 1959. This is also what propels Bhabha to propose his idea of atomic bomb. His logic is simple — have a weapon so powerful, countries will think twice before attacking India.
India’s desire to initiate a space programme was perceived as an ambitious move by a developing nation. “Can India even build a bomb?” asks a firang woman diplomat. Bhabha’s proximity to the Prime Minister was a key factor in propelling India’s space ambitions.
While the show begins with criticism of Nehru ‘favouring’ Bhabha, whom he also knew personally, he is also the one who pushes for the young nation’s ‘tryst with destiny’ and Bhabha and Sarabhai take that forward, despite a maze of personal conflicts and political red tape. Nehruvian politics is consistently targeted in recent times, but Rocket Boys, a fitting tribute to the men who said ‘yes’ to being the firsts in a newly emancipated country, tells us both sides of Nehru-story.
Pataal Lok brought to fore a truly talented actor, Ishwak Singh. Ishwak played the role of young, idealistic cop in that Netflix series, a foil to Hathi ram, whom the character played by Singh, Imran Ansari looks up to, and respects. He truly plays the role of ‘conscience keeper’ in both the series. In Rocket Boys, Jim Sarbh’s Bhabha tells Ishwak’s Sarabhai, “You be my conscience.”
Sarbh needs no introduction. His choice of roles have always been eclectic, and he brings a unique Jim Sarbh-ness to the characters he plays, without ever losing the essence of whom he is playing.
Jim and Ishwak’s characters are foils to each other – they push and help each other grow in their respective fields, and also have conflicts. But all of that leads to them becoming who they were and achieve what they did. It seems like a bildungsroman of India’s space research heroes.
The script captures an eventful period of Indian political history, namely its freedom struggle, history seen through the lens of the personal and professional battles that the two scientists had to wage on the way to realising their dreams.
From losing his father to the mistrust created towards atomic energy because of the atomic bombs dropped at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Bhabha’s journey is fraught with personal and political crisis. The two frenemies however have a common goal that binds them–to push their country to its best. Ishwak says that what stayed with him the most is how both Bhabha and Sarabhai “could have led very convenient lives, in terms of their family wealth or education, but they chose their journeys.”
Behind every successful man
In stories of male brilliance, the support systems are just that, support systems, who are supposed to be stoic, silent and letting the brilliant men shine. Not in Rocket Boys. Bhabha develops a bond with a young lawyer named Parvana ‘Pipsy’ Irani played by the extremely talented Saba Azad. She is one of the many fictitious figures in the show. But as with a lot of brilliant men, Bhabha is so immersed in his work that he struggles to give the Pipsy the attention she wants and deserves. She decides to choose her own happiness instead of endlessly waiting around.
Sarabhai falls in love and marries dancer Mrinalini Sarabhai played by Regina Cassandra. Mrinalini, a dancer married into a business family, lets nothing deflect her from her ambition to start a dance academy. Kamala Chaudhary, a colleague and also someone Sarabhai years for, is a woman who brings about the change in his father’s mills. Pipsy, too, never shies away from speaking her mind when it matters. It may be the 1940s and women in India may not be as privileged as men, but they definitely do not hide behind their successful partners.
The journey of Rocket Boys continues as APJ Abdul Kalam becomes to Sarabhai what Sarabhai was to Homi. After all, this is just the first season. There is more to rocket science and India.
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(Edited by Prashant)