Rocket Boys is a game-changing portrayal of two iconic scientists

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Rocket Boys is a game-changing portrayal of two iconic scientists

Illustration: Arati Gujar

“Mere workers ki zindagi koi laboratory ka prayog nahi, ki hum ek baar fail ho gaye to doosri bar kar sakte hain,” an industrialist tells his idealist son, the ace-scientist Vikram Sarabhai. Sarabhai wants to modernize his father’s cotton mills. This dialogue captures the essence of “Rocket Boys”, a fictional web series about two of the most celebrated Indian scientists – Homi J Bhabha and Vikram Sarabhai. Two brilliant scientists, who dragged India into the modern era, but without ever having had the feat be subject to the emotional and political costs of persistent innovation. SonyLiv’s Rocket Boys is that story.

Rocket Boys is about two brilliant scientists who dragged India into the modern era without ever having had the feat be subject to the emotional and political costs of persistent innovation.

The show intertwines the two lives to recreate the heady times of our nation’s infancy, from the beginning of World War 1 in 1940 till India’s response to the loss in the Indo-Sino war of 1962. While the pragmatic Homi (Jim Sarbh) thinks creating an atomic bomb will save India from future attacks, the Gandhian Vikram (Ishwak Singh) cannot imagine another Hiroshima-like happening. Sometimes at odds yet often warm, the evolving relationship between the khadi-clad Vikram and suited-up Homi paints an arresting picture of how passion and patriotism co-existed in various shades through this period. The parallels and contrasts are substantial and incisive in their probing of the protagonists’ being – their privileged upbringings, romances, relationships with parents, divergent ideas about the role of science in the young nation’s journey, and their undying spirit to actualise their dreams.

The show intertwines the two lives to recreate the heady times of our nation’s infancy.

For a story based on real science, the series does a good job of visualizing and explaining technical details to a layperson in a cinematic way. The core of the story though does not lie in the science, but in the protagonists’ ‘jugaadu’ perseverance against all odds. Contextualized with India’s freedom movement, the story often takes almost fantastical turns – sample Homi and Vikram getting jailed for replacing a Union Jack with the erstwhile Indian National Congress Flag or a party where Pandit Nehru (Rajit Kapoor) on piano is jamming with Homi on violin! The tone steers away from self-seriousness using a dash of humour every time the duo find themselves in a broil; Homi is often even a love-guru to Vikram.

Directed by Abhay Pannu, the show is replete with measured twists and conflicts strewn across the episodes, and keeps the audience on its toes. The screenplay is commendable for humanizing the hallowed characters. Instead of hero-worshiping, the writers get into the gray areas of their lives, not shying away from portraying them as less-than-perfect humans. This is evident in the strained relationship Vikram shares with his wife and ace classical dancer, Mrinalini (Regina Cassandra), and Homi’s opportunistic, self-absorbed tendencies.

For a story based on real science, the series does a good job of visualizing and explaining technical details to a layperson in a cinematic way.

Jim Sarbh joyously embodies the light-hearted renaissance spirit of Homi, and Ishwak Singh shines in the soft-hearted vulnerability of the socially-naive Vikram. Regina Cassandra, in her second Hindi outing after “Ek Ladki Ko Dekha To Aisa Laga”, plays the kind of female character which makes the Bechdel Test fail. “Agar tumko picture dekhni hai to chup-chaap dekho. Warna you can leave”, Mrinalini tells Vikram while they’re watching a sci-fi film in Bangalore’s iconic Rex Theatre after Vikram starts sermonizing on the unscientific nature of the film. Also, an apt meta-reference to the dichotomy of science and art.

The narrative is spread across India’s geography, and vividly captures cultural nuances of the erstwhile Bombay, Ahmedabad and Bangalore. Jim, Ishwak and Regina also deliver authentic accents – Parsi, Gujarati and Malayali – so the casting department deserves some credit. The only outlier in the main cast is Saba Azad (as Parvana Irani, Homi’s romantic interest), who does not get much screen time beyond standing and smiling besides Homi. Cameos by actors playing historical figures like APJ Abdul Kalam, CV Raman, JRD Tata and Pandit Nehru add intrigue to the show, though one would crave a meatier part for Abdul Kalam in Season 2.

For a country where the majority of science graduates become bankers and managers, “Rocket Boys” is an important watch to reflect on the dreams of India’s OG scientific pioneers and hopefully inspire young minds.

The sepia-tinged cinematography by Harshvir Oberai, supported by ample use of archival footage and Meghna Gandhi’s frugal production design, recreates the vintage period of the 40s to the 60s. A special mention for the animated opening credits, which play to the rousing fusion score by Achint Thakkar. The smooth pace of the storytelling is hampered in few sequences which seem long-drawn or over-the-top compared to the otherwise realistic tone. This is evident in scenes where Vikram all of a sudden transforms into a mass leader giving speeches to mill workers, or when he’s trying too hard to woo his romantic interest.

Overall, this fictionalized exploration yields an engaging viewing, and for Indian showbiz, a rare success at making real scientists look like mythical heroes. For a country where the majority of science graduates become bankers and managers, and a leading technology campus is now funding studies exploring the benefits of cow urine, “Rocket Boys” is an important watch to reflect on the dreams of India’s OG scientific pioneers and hopefully inspire young minds.

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