Every good story needs an antagonist, and SonyLIV’s Rocket Boys conjures up a Muslim physicist from Kolkata, Mehdi Raza, who builds a cyclotron and is sidestepped by Jawaharlal Nehru’s favouritism towards Homi Bhabha — a Communist Party candidate who contests in an election and is wooed by the US Central Investigation Agency as well.
Except that Mehdi Raza, played by actor Dibyendu Bhattacharya, is a pure work of fiction in a series about Homi Bhabha, Vikram Sarabhai, and Nehru. There was a real-life scientist from Kolkata, Meghnad Saha, who built the cyclotron, but he was Hindu. Rocket Boys creates a false rivalry between Raza and Bhabha just to spice up the plot but also to point out that there was a galaxy of competing scientists at that time.
“It is an amalgamation of various nuclear physicists and scientists at that time in the country who were doing remarkable work, but were not given the recognition they deserved,” says Abhay Pannu, the writer and director of Rocket Boys. He adds that talent did not always get its due reward. Sometimes it was the lack of privilege and even favouritism towards others that stopped it from happening.
Drawing up a character like Reza, Pannu asserts, is a way of also showing how Islamophobia works. He is ultimately a man who is angry at being overlooked and pushing for what he deserves.
Who is Mehdi Raza?
Mehdi Reza appears in the first episode and dismisses Jawaharlal Nehru’s China policy as ‘flop’. It is also here where his dislike of Homi Bhabha is established. In the subsequent episodes, Reza keeps getting more ‘villainous’ to magnify Bhabha’s stature. The latter, who appears more often than not as eccentric, is also extremely privileged — be it in terms of family wealth, his proximity to Nehru or even as the scientific advisor of the Prime Minister. Bhabha, however, has to deal with Reza, who proves to be a significant roadblock to him in becoming the Father of India’s Nuclear programme.
The same cannot be said of Reza, who has to fight tooth and nail to get every inch of success and the recognition that he gathers.
Jim Sarbh, who plays Homi Bhabha in the series, says, “The person in the position of privilege will look at the fellow scientist as a fellow scientist. But the person who does not come from privilege will think of the other as a silver spoon versus not.”
The almost-Nobel laureate
Meghnad Saha gave the world the ‘Thermal Ionisation Equation’, also known as the ‘Saha Equation’. It is his most recognised contribution to astrophysics where related an element’s ionisation state to temperature and pressure. The theory explained the spectral classification of stars.
The Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics, set up in 1943, is a tribute to the scientist who became a Member of Parliament from the northwest Calcutta constituency. While director Abhay Pannu had a larger plan in place for making Reza’s character the way it is, Raychaudhary believes that the series could have had Saha instead.
Saha was rustic, outspoken, and down-to-earth — qualities manifested in Reza’s character as well. But there is also the fact that the latter is portrayed as a Muslim character. Pannu points out that in a way, the creation of Reza’s character was also to reflect our own Islamophobia in thinking that maybe he will turn out to be an out and out villain. But he does not.
Pannu adds, “It would have made great drama because he is a colourful character — low caste, reactionary, and completely anti the background these two come from.”
A tale of the two Muslims
If Mehdi Reza is the antagonist who creates roadblocks in the path of the ‘hero’, then Kalam is the protege, the hope. Abhay Pannu, however, points out that Kalam has never really been seen through his ‘Muslimness’. He has always been seen first as a rocket scientist.
Kalam is the hope of the future put into motion by the ‘Rocket Boys’ as he joins Sarabhai’s nascent space research programme. Homi Bhabha disapproves of Reza, saying he supports the Muslim League. Sarabhai, however, does not question anything about Kalam.
Reza’s story is a tale of resistance and questioning even Nehru when he is at fault. Ishwak Singh, who plays Vikram Sarabhai says, “Reza was a brilliant scientist and he did have takers. Maybe the starting point is different, but they were all brilliant scientists.”
It is crucial to remember that Bhabha and Reza were not competing in the same branch/sphere of science — a fact that Ishwak also points out. He adds, “Reza had a lot of support; he had funding. Reza, however, was in a different branch.”
Reza balances out Rocket Boys in terms of being the ‘outsider’ who calls out the favouritism meted out to Bhabha by his ‘bhai’ Nehru. Bhabha gets to convince the raja of Travancore to turn his resources of monazite to India— no one else manages to do that. It is pointed out at the meeting of the formation of the Atomic Energy Commission of India (AEC).
Suvrat Raju, a theoretical physicist at TIFR-ICTS, Bengaluru says, “Bhabha’s major administrative legacy was the three-stage nuclear program. Here, he made a significant technical mistake by pinning his hope on untested technology, which led the program to stagnate and never meaningfully advance beyond the first stage.” One wonders if any other scientist would have gotten away with what Bhabha often pulled in terms of scientific development in a manner he saw fit.
‘War’ and the Indian scientific renaissance
The thrust of Rocket Boys is a tale of success and celebration, of India’s best scientific minds, be it Sarabhai, Bhabha, Kalam, or even Reza. There is, however, creative liberty at play. Narayan Prasad, space engineer, space lawyer, co-founder of SatSearch, and a partner to the Kerala SpacePark, says “I think the scriptwriters should have involved actual scientists and historians in a much more integrated fashion. At the moment it looks like they wanted to have everything from politics to romance and everything in between integrated into the series in one way or the other.”
Somak Raychaudhury of the Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics, Pune says, “I haven’t watched a lot, but so far it is riveting, fast-paced, and obviously fictionalised to keep the interest of the viewer. I like the actors and the portrayal of two of the most creative Indians of the past century. What I did not like so far is the fact that the obvious adulation glosses over some of the conflicts — particularly with Meghnad Saha or Raman, for instance.”
The series seeks to have a largely happy ending and to showcase the spirit of a scientific renaissance, of the triumph of India’s nascent space and atomic research programmes even as there were many naysayers both in and outside India. To that end, the series has taken considerable liberties. It is evident in episode seven titled ‘We are at War’.
“The fact that Abhay had to make Bhabha and Reza meet by the reactor in episode seven is brilliant because the only person at the time in India who could understand what it felt for Dr Bhabha to make that reactor was Reza because he had built a cyclotron. That is when the differences would disappear,” says Jim Sarbh.
“It has been 15 years”, says Bhabha in episode seven. The professional rivalry spans this period, and yet, in a very filmy but poignant moment, Reza chooses to congratulate Bhabha, who, in turn, says Reza is needed in AEC. Towards the end of Rocket Boys, Pannu also subtly subverts the Islamophobia that he plants early on in the audience’s mind — Vishwesh Mathur is revealed as the actual traitor.
The ‘balancing’ act between Bhabha and Reza gives the series some of its most dramatic moments, and it culminates in an acknowledgement of each other’s genius. Maybe it is a tale of ‘frenemies’, but hopefully, the next season has more of these moments and the stories of the two brilliant scientists.
With inputs from Sandhya Ramesh.
(Edited by Humra Laeeq)