This is the era of space-related content on Indian screens. The year 2022 has already seen SonyLiv’s smash hit series Rocket Boys and R. Madhavan’s recent directorial debut Rocketry: The Nambi Effect. In 2021, Discovery+ showcased India’s Space Odyssey, and in 2019, we had two deliveries–Mission Mangal and MOM—both on India’s Mars mission.
What has prompted this sudden interest in the representation of the Indian Space Research Organisation, or India’s space programmes over the years? It was something only US films and OTT series were exploring with big budgets, and a dash of nationalism. Now there seems to be an attempt to educate Indians about our ‘golden period’ of science and technology, especially under the tutelage of stalwarts like Dr Homi Bhabha, Dr Vikram Sarabhai and Dr Abdul Kalam, and, of course, the ‘controversial’ figure of Dr Nambi Narayanan.
India is now creating ‘science’ heroes through the medium that does it best — entertainment. Sometimes glamorous, sometimes heroic larger-than-life characters — scientists are getting a new lease of life and being reaffirmed in the nation-building process. It is like the science geeks finally have the movies to look up to.
R for Rocket Boys & Rocketry
The phenomenon of Rocket Boys was unprecedented. Whether it was the cast, with Ishwak Singh and Jim Sarbh playing Dr Vikram Sarabhai and Dr Homi Bhabha respectively, or a fictional series finally looking at these iconic figures, the show’s rocket took off and landed quite squarely among its audience. The show was also criticised for its portrayal of Sarabhai, even though the scientist’s family was on board with it. The relationship between Bhabha and Sarabhai, and what it took for the two brilliant scientists to propel a young India’s science programme forward gripped scientific and non-scientific communities alike. Science suddenly became cool, and accessible. A second season is anticipated.
With Rocketry, a thrilling true story of the spying case against ISRO scientist Dr Nambi Narayanan saw the light of day. A commendable directorial debut by R. Madhavan, who also plays the scientist in the film, it takes us into the challenges Indian space scientists have faced to take the space program where it currently stands. One common thread running through both shows is past glory.
There is no immediate point of reference for the audience. How many of us know the name of the current head of ISRO? What do we know about India’s recent space triumphs? Unless you are a part of the scientific community, you’ll probably have to Google. That is precisely the issue–the ‘now’ is absent.
Also, there are many more avenues to explore, be it about the lives of the Indians who made it to space–Rakesh Sharma and Kalpana Chawla—or technical prowess, such as Vikas, the satellite launch programme that was indigenously made and has never failed India.
Women still juggle home and outer space
India’s first interplanetary mission, the 2013 Mangalyaan or Mars Orbiter Mission made ISRO the fourth space agency in the world to reach the red planet. At the core of its success was a team of brilliant women scientists, from deputy operation director Ritu Karidhal to deputy operation director Nandini Harinath, physicist Moumita Dutta, and geosat programme director Anuradha T.K.
Their grit, determination and most importantly, sheer brilliance, however, get dumbed down in both Mission Mangal and Mission Over Mars (MOM). The movies become more about ‘look they manage homes and science together’ instead of the truly extraordinary feat they managed to pull.
While Mission Mangal needs a man (Akshay Kumar) rescuing the women (played by a stellar cast of Vidya Balan, Taapsee Pannu, Sonakshi Sinha), in Mission Over Mars, we have long-drawn personal life conflicts seeping in. The time spent on highlighting the personal lives of the scientists, meant to show how women often have to be ‘perfect’ both inside and outside their homes, comes at the cost of their scientific sides.
Don’t dumb it down
In India, if you are the smarter kid, you take up science, or else you ‘settle’ for Commerce or Arts. The elitism associated with taking up science makes it even more alienating. There is a tendency to look down on others from the pedestal of science, where others aren’t considered intelligent enough.
If the attempt is to bring home stories of our scientific heroes, and provide entertainment, dumbing down is not the solution. In this, Rocketry stands out–it makes no attempt to take away scientific jargon. It doesn’t trivialise the intelligence of the audience. Between two scientists, complex scientific terms will be part of the conversation. That is basic.
Christopher Nolan’s films are an immediate example. Despite complex ideas, films like Interstellar (2014) generate new conversations and make you interested in the science of it, and that is ultimately the mark of a well-made scientific film or show.
In such an environment, the shows dumbing it down to fit into ‘normal’ lingo is actually discrediting the effort and lives of those who have contributed so much. Indian shows are especially guilty of it. The effort should actually be the opposite–to create curiosity. That is the least we can do for the scientific community, and the audience too.
Views are personal.
This article is part of a series called Beyond the Reel. You can read all the articles here.