If you are addicted or even curious about the history of independent India in the pre-Google era, watch Rocket Boys on SonyLIV. In eight episodes, it’s a lot of watching, about three full-length feature films’ worth of time.
Yet, you will likely watch it non-stop, sort of breathlessly. There’s fantastic production, acting by Jim Sarbh, Ishwak Singh, Regina Cassandra, Saba Azad, Dibyendu Bhattacharya, Rajit Kapoor as Nehru and many more.
You will watch it wide-eyed if you are blank on where, how and why India’s scientific-political complex emerged. And how did a third element, military, get hyphenated with it.
If, on the other hand, you grew up in that era, you’d watch it even more keenly. To see the stories you know come alive. It would also bring back to you the eternal mysteries that endure, and would now haunt a fourth generation of Indians. For example, Dr Homi Bhabha’s death in that Air India Boeing 707 ‘Kanchenjunga’ crash on that other great peak, Mont Blanc, in Europe. That mystery is as prone to conspiracy theories as the death/disappearance of Netaji and Lal Bahadur Shastri’s sudden death in Tashkent.
Now, I might have written about many different things, from politics to insurgency to wars to sport and science. One thing I have never written is a movie or art review. So, rest assured, that isn’t what I am about to inflict on you after watching Rocket Boys.
Professionally, I am trained as a reporter. Like most of my generation, I learnt to cover the crime beat first. Call it my suspicious mind, if you so wish, that I look for theft in what is, after all, just a stirring, nationalistic TV series on the lives of two magnificent men, Homi Bhabha and Vikram Sarabhai.
But, if you combine it with my upbringing as a child of the 1960s, the epoch where the legend of the Rocket Boys comes to fruition, I cannot but note a most serious and egregious identity theft. That of Prof. Meghnad Saha, among the greatest scientists ever produced in India, a physicist in the class of C.V. Raman, Jagdish Chandra Bose and Satyendra Nath Bose. Bhabha and Sarabhai followed in that wake.
This was the golden era of Indian physics. To learn more about this, I called Jahnavi Phalkey, a brilliant chronicler and researcher of science history, and director of the Science Gallery in Bengaluru. She tells us just how heady this period was. Of the 10 Indian scientists admitted to the Royal Society from the late 19th Century to 1940, she says, eight were physicists.
A film script needs action, excitement, some heroes and villains. That this brilliantly produced and tautly constructed Nikhil Advani OTT show picks Bhabha and Sarabhai as the heroes to the exclusion of most contemporaries is alright. They are, at least, for real. But if the story also needs a villain, must you invent one?
There is a villain of sorts. A Calcutta physicist, stocky, dark-complexioned, bitter, inferiorly complexed, so deeply jealous of Bhabha, he’s open to sabotaging him. He’s not a bad scientist. He initiated India’s first cyclotron at the Institute of Nuclear Physics in Calcutta in 1950. He also contests elections for the Lok Sabha in 1951, wins and rises to be a critic of Nehru. In reality there indeed was a brilliant character who answered most of that description. Except, his name was Prof. Meghnad Saha, not Mehdi Raza (as it’s morphed in the show).
This is obviously being passed off as creative liberty. See my colleague Tina Das’s article on this where she has spoken with the actors and the makers of the show. But, if you had to invent one fictional character in a story which has the unqualified pretence of being real if dramatised, using real names and characters from history, did it have to be a villain that never existed?
The ‘villain’ for the most part, in fact is a Shia who once supported the Muslim League, was ‘called out’ by Bhabha for taking funds from Jinnah to build his institute of nuclear science in Calcutta? With a deep anger with Sunni Muslims who apparently dragged out his parents and slaughtered them? One so vulnerable in his inferiority complex (compared to the well-connected Rocket Boys) that he’s vulnerable to a CIA trap to subvert India’s nuclear programme? The case officer, assigned by the CIA to recruit him is, no surprise, a journalist.
The makers of the show know who’s in bad odour in these polarised times. Muslims and journalists to begin with. Then, Raza is elected from a Communist party to the Lok Sabha. So that completes the 2022 triangle of evil: Muslim, Communist, journalist. You might still let it pass, everybody has to salute the times, and we also note repeated references to ‘Made in India’ and ‘atma nirbharta’. A Muslim villain has been par for the course since the advent of the Sunny Deol genre in Bollywood. But, did you really have to steal the great Meghnad Saha’s identity for this? And it’s doubly unfortunate and silly because if the genuine story of arguments, interplay of relationships among these geniuses would have made an exciting enough story, why sully it with fictional nonsense? I spoke with Abhay Pannu, director of Rocket Boys. He said he created the fictional Raza to create a rival for Bhabha, besides underlining class divide and Islamophobia. But he insists he wasn’t borrowing or stealing Meghnad Saha.
So who was Meghnad Saha, whose identity has indeed been stolen to create this fictional, self-pitying, villainous scientist called Mehdi Raza? Saha was born in a very poor, ‘Namasudra’ (a Dalit sub-caste today) family. While still in school, he joined protests against Curzon’s division of Bengal. It lost him his scholarship and sustenance. But he was too brilliant to be left behind, and Calcutta was going through an epoch of scientific renaissance.
At Presidency College, where he faced awful discrimination in the hostel from upper castes, his teachers were titans like Jagadish Chandra Bose and Prafulla Chandra Ray. The classmate closest to him, personally and academically, was Satyendra Nath Bose (Bose-Einstein statistics, Boson etc). Together, they wrote the first English translation of the Einstein-Minkowski papers laying out the theory of relativity in German. They were helped along by another great Indian physicist-statistician, P.C. Mahalanobis. This first English translation (published by Calcutta University in 1920), made Einstein a global celebrity. It coincided, helpfully, with British researcher Arthur Eddington validating the theory.
Saha went on to conquer new frontiers in physics. His greatest and the most enduring contribution is named after him, the Saha Equation. A phone call to Dr Anil Kakodkar, who began his career as a campus recruit under Bhabha in 1964, and rose to be among his distinguished successors as the chairman of the Department of Atomic Energy, helps give non-physicists like most of us an idea of how important that contribution has been. Whatever we can make out scientifically by looking at the light emitted by stars, he says, needs us to employ the Saha Equation.
Saha was as much an institution builder as Sarabhai and Bhabha, if not more, in tougher, pre-Independence times. He was the founder of the Institute of Nuclear Physics in Calcutta, which is now named after him, not some Mehdi Raza, and no, he took no money from Jinnah, nor thought of going to Pakistan. Before he returned to teaching and building a formidable physics department at Allahabad University (1923-38). He built India’s first cyclotron and in 1950, Irene Joliot Curie came to inaugurate it.
At any point of time, he was as much a nationalist as Bhabha and Sarabhai, enormously more political and willing to take physical risks. From around 1915 or so, he became a member of the Anushilan Samity, among the earliest revolutionary organisations in Bengal, established contact with the Gadar Party in the north, and even reached out to Sinn Fein in Ireland. After all, they were all fighting the same enemy, the British. Despite all the political and police attention it drew, he carried on. With Subhas Chandra Bose, in 1938, he helped form the Indian Planning Committee. Phalkey also notes that while he might have had many differences with Nehru, the latter invited him to head it.
These three brilliant scientists had diverse world-views. Kakodkar says Bhabha was aristocratic, always thought big, made the switch from theoretical physics at Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), which he had raised with J.R.D. Tata’s help, and founded at Trombay what was later called the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre. He consciously moved from theoretical physics to technology because he thought India didn’t have the time, nor he the patience, to wait for theories to transform into something tangible.
It isn’t as if he hadn’t already made his mark in theory. Already, Bhabha Scattering was a phenomenon elaborated and named after him. Later, Kakodkar tells us, he worked with another contemporary to produce what is called the Bhabha-Heitler Cascade Shower Theory.
Like him, Sarabhai also made a switch to technology as he founded ISRO. On the way, the great institution builder that he was, he had set up the Physical Research Lab and the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad, among others. You also need to read just Wikipedia-level history to understand that the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, was a result of many of these great minds working together. Raman, Saha and indeed Bhabha. He was, in the mid-1940s, a board member at IISc, as a ‘family’ (Tatas) representative.
Were there differences between them? Show me two brilliant people who fully agree with each other on everything, and I will take just two minutes to prove to you how they aren’t brilliant. Bhabha and Sarabhai had different approaches to institution building. Kakodkar says Bhabha was mostly intuitive. He found a man and built a lab around him. Sarabhai was more patient: Build an institution first and find the people.
The Saha-Bhabha disagreement was over fundamental aspects of India’s development. Saha, probably because he had seen deprivation and discrimination, wanted even science to grow from the grassroots. Bhabha, the entitled aristocrat (as Saha saw him), would rather make spectacular achievements in limited areas and catapult India to some kind of leadership position. Unlike Bhabha or Sarabhai, or scientists generally at any time, Saha was a political risk-taker.
In 1951, he contested from Calcutta NW as an Independent supported by some progressive groups and won. In Parliament, he argued with Nehru but also helped him at the Planning Commission. It is widely acknowledged that it was his scientific creativity that pushed newly independent India towards mega river water projects. The Damodar Valley project was his brainchild too. Meanwhile, even as an MP, he continued to be the professor and dean of science faculty at Calcutta University until his death from a heart attack in 1956. Ironically, on his way to the Planning Commission.
Kakodkar says these greats of Indian science disagreed over many things, but shared a strong, deep respect for each other. Bhabha and Saha wrote what Phalkey describes as “pages upon pages” of letters to each other, often arguing, but oozing with mutual respect and affection. The letters, she says, can be found in Delhi’s Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML). These scientists were builders of modern India as much as the great politicians and freedom fighters of the day. As for their disagreements, check out Nehru-Patel-Netaji, and so on. Their journey is best described in that famous old qawwali: ‘Raste alag alag hain, thikana toh ek hai/manzil har ek shakhs ko jaana to ek hai’ (people choose different routes, but aim to reach the same destination).
We’ve told you all that Saha was. A great physicist, initiator of India’s first cyclotron, an Independent MP in our first Parliament, a deeply political revolutionary. Mehdi Raza, who is ghosting him in Rocket Boys, checks almost all these boxes. Now let’s see what Saha wasn’t: He wasn’t a bitter saboteur, he did not become an MP for a Communist party, he died in 1956 so wasn’t alive to be still fighting with Bhabha after the Chinese debacle in 1962 and nearly getting recruited to a diabolical CIA plot to “take out” Bhabha.
Finally, he wasn’t a Muslim, Shia or Sunni. But that was much too tempting while creating a mostly evil character around whom the only fictional story was unfortunately built in search of some drama. That he was from a lower caste, and has mostly been forgotten in our popular memory since (on his centenary in 1993, the Narasimha Rao government issued a postage stamp), probably made it more convenient to bury his character in what pretends to be a “true” history and give him a mostly evil, dark, Muslim avatar. In our book, this is a crime on not just history but on all the ideals so dear to people like Saha, Bhabha and Sarabhai. Remember, those incredible scientists were freedom fighters too.