Stellar acts by Jim Sarbh, Ishwak Singh, taut screenplay, fine writing, direction all combine to give a fitting tribute to Dr. Homi Bhabha and Dr. Vikram Sarabhai, two men who envisioned India’s nuclear program.
Rating: 4 / 5
By Mayur Lookhar
1962. A formidable foe [China] has waged a war. At a time when the ‘mandarins’ of India ought to unite to defend the sovereignty of the nation, the meeting ends in a disaster for the country, It also sees a fallout between two scientific luminaries – Dr. Vikram Sarabhai [Ishwak Singh] and Dr. Homi Bhabha [Jim Sarbh]. Phew, a divorce between two protagonists isn’t the ideal way to launch Rocket Boys , a web series on two of India’s most accomplished scientists.
The conflict is explored later as Abhay Koranne [story, concept], and writer, director Abhay Pannu take us back in time to the 40s where two completely different personalities forged a bond that would later shape the future of science and technology in India. Nuclear physicist Dr. Homi Bhabha (1909-1966) is regarded as the Father of India’s nuclear program. He was ably backed by physicist, astronomer Dr. Sarabhai (1919-1971), who also founded the Indian Space Research Organization [ISRO].
They had their science dreams, but albeit brief, they began their journey as unsung revolutionaries in a Colonial India. Two men with vastly different personalities but with a common goal of making a self-reliant country by foraying into civil and defense nuclear energy, and also making a mark in space exploration.
These men are surely idolized by the scientific community, an inspiration for all tech, science students, but for laymen like yours truly, the men sadly remained part of a chapter in school history books. Their stories were long due in cinema. Much like India’s long due dream of becoming a nuclear power, this web-series, too, has taken a while to launch. While the great men are no more, creator- producer Nikkhil Advani, Koranne and Pannu’s Rocket Boys  is a not just a fitting tribute to Dr. Sarabhai and Dr. Homi Bhabha, but also to the late Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam (1931-2015), the man who eventually fulfilled the collective dreams of his mentors. Season 2 will see more from Kalam. The launch season lights up on the back of cinematic brilliance by Pannu and his team. Lyricist Kausar Munir makes a mark as dialogue writer here, with the quartet of Abhijeet Parmar, Gundeep Kaur, Kaashvie Nair, Ranjit M Tewari and Shiv Singh all credited for additional screenplay.
Whilst science cannot be undermined, but Pannu and co. create the right mix of science and art. It has its fair dose of drama too. Rocket Boys gives us a fair account into the soul behind the great minds. In a pleasant surprise, here is an Indian biographical content that doesn’t feel like a hagiography. There is great acknowledgment to Sarabhai’s children Mallika, Kartikeya, and grandchild Revanta. The descendants were brave to let the makers reveal an uncomfortable aspect [extramarital affair] to the great man. It sure would have entertainment journalists exploring this piece of Sarabhai’s life. There has never been any perfect human. Abhay Pannu showcases not just the brilliance, but also embraces the imperfections of the leading characters.
Sarabhai, a humble, sensitive soul, whereas Bhabha, a classy, aggressive but charming Parsi guy who has no place for sentiments in matters of national security. Their dwindling population has also mirrored their scanty presence in Hindi cinema. Boman Irani carried forward theatre doyen Dinyar Contractor’s legacy into Bollywood, but often playing non-Parsi characters.
Jim Sarbh came like a breath of fresh air in Neerja . He’s since impressed in pivotal roles but Rocket Boys is perhaps a God-sent opportunity. Sarbh shines in arguably the most defining role of his career. His polyglot skills make him apt to play the classy, suave Dr. Homi Bhabha. At times, Sarbh’s earned the wrath of media with his outspoken comments. It’s good though he hasn’t curbed his pride for that quality was possessed by Dr. Bhabha too. His flawless English helps Bhabha give a fitting reply to an English bully.
For a guy who despises politics, Bhabha uses his sharp wit to work his way through bureaucracy. Here is a man who addressed the then Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru as ‘bhai’ [brother]. He gatecrashes a government party carrying truckload of coal and a piece of uranium as a gift to the Prime Minister. He’s unafraid to spar with his friends, family but each time, he used his charm to win them over. In the first episode, he refers to his famous lawyer father Jehangir Hormusi Bhabha as a son of bitch. Ah, these Parsis they are free-spirited souls. Sarbh gives a virtuoso performance making him the heart and soul of Rocket Boys.
Ishwak Singh burst into the scene with Paatal Lok . His chocolate-boy look is backed by his acting prowess. One mole was enough for him to get into the body of Dr. Sarabhai, but Singh embodies the humility, the spirit of Sarabhai finely. What works for the show is the chemistry between Sarbh and Singh. Contrasting personalities, but don’t opposites attract? The scientific conversations are simplified but we love how the men aren’t afraid to go beyond science to find a solution. The first such instance saw Sarabhai and Bhabha call for a classical dance show to raise funds for their institute. That was also the moment where Sarabhai would meet his beloved Mrinalini Swaminathan [Regina Cassandra]. Presumably, dramatized, we loved the courting that is tinged with old school romance, but it doesn’t discount the male hegemony of the time. A nerd and a classical dancer out for a movie date is a sight to behold. Easy to label them as opposite, but isn’t there science behind art too?
Bhabha and Parwana aka Pipsy Irani [Saba Azad] are in a no-frills relationship. They have everything going for them, but only thing lacking is commitment. While Pipsy is free to follow her ambitions, Mrinalini has a tough task to pursue her dream post marriage. Cassandra isn’t consistent with the Tamil/Malayalam accent but succeeds in bringing out Mrinalini’s individuality. The personal stories run the risk over of overshadowing the larger dreams, but Pannu and his writers make a timely return to address the key issues of national security.
Of all the characters, the one most fascinating is Raza Mehdi [Dibyendu Bhattacharya]. Reports suggest this is a fictitious character that embodies all those unspoken scientists who played a part in India’s nuclear dream. Mankind drives on dreams, but dreams also lead to clashes. More than that, we reckon a Mehdi was needed to back the conspiracy theories that followed the tragedy in 1966. His backstory is entranced in the Sunni-Shia divide in Bankura, West Bengal. Mehdi is not anti-national but a creation of envy. Bhattacharya’s exemplary show makes Mehdi such a believable character.
The dead don’t come back to defend themselves. The late former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru has become the subject of ridicule for ultra nationalist trolls today. Pannu’s Nehru [Rajit Kapoor] is gracious in admitting to his political mistakes, but the show doesn’t demonise the former Prime Minister. On the contrary, Rocket Boys reminds us that without the support of Nehru, the nuclear, space dream would never have materialized. The setbacks were simply down to Nehru upholding the principles of a true democracy.
Nehru also enjoys a fine chemistry with Homi Bhabha and Sarabhai fondly calling them as his mad scientists. At times, the Nehruvian accent gets a bit too stressful for Kapur but the matured, human portrayal of Nehru is welcome in these profane times.
Staying with chemistry, the Bhabha-Sarabhai discord is never really explored beyond the morality that sees the latter resisting Bhabha’s urgent call for India developing nuclear weapons.
The key characters all make an instant impact on you but the one we enjoyed the most is that of a smiling young A.P.J Abdul Kalam [Danish Akhtar] telling an old fellow devout to stay clear of hate Ideology. Few years later, he turns up uninvited at Sarabhai’s institute carrying a C.V that proudly mentions about his rejections. Well, that’s the maverick Kalam for you.
The principal characters are all well etched out, but Pannu also sheds light on the key men such as – C.V. Raman [Karthik Srinivasan], J.R.D Tata [Rajeev Kachroo], Lal Bahadur Shastri [Vijay Kashyap]. V.K. Menon, the then defense minister.
More than creative, artistic brilliance, Rocket Boys captures the milieu in and around India in those times. One mustn’t forget this country has had a hard task to be where it is today. Back then, India, dubbed a third world country, riled the democratic, capitalists Americans who didn’t like India’s close proximity to communist U.S.S.R [Union of Soviet Socialists Republic] and its nuclear ambitions. While China is too big a foe to be ignored, but Pannu resists the populist temptation of Pakistan bashing. In fact, save for Jinnah’s divisive crap playing on radio, we don’t recollect Pakistan featuring in any other conversation. The neighbor made more noise from the 1965 war omwards. It would be hard to ignore Pakistan in the second season though.
The individual creativity is backed by technical expertise, too. Achint Thakkar’s mesmerizing series theme and the corresponding designs, background score cast a spell on you. The closing sitar tunes of the theme music, ahh this is purely world class. It’s matched by the rich production design too.
Sarabhai, Homi Bhabha’s contribution to the country is unparalleled, but Rocket Boys succeeds in giving a fair dramatized account into the life and times of the great men. These men dared to dream big at a time where most Indians struggled to earn their daily bread. If not much then, their stories certainly will inspire Indians by the millions now. The opening season has launched well. Viewers would hope season 2 goes full throttle.
Produced by Emmay Entertainment, Roy Kapur Films, Rocket Boys is streaming on Sony Liv.