Rocket Boys Director Abhay Pannu On Making Science Entertaining

The first-time director talks about not wanting to make the show a jingoistic saga, the decision to write much of the dialogue in English and the fictional characters he added in
Rocket Boys Director Abhay Pannu On Making Science Entertaining

Stories of national pride, patriotism, war and valour have been trending for a while now. A worthy addition to this trend is Rocket Boys, streaming on Sony LIV. The ambitious show that tells the inspiring story of Dr Homi Bhabha (Jim Sarbh), Dr Vikram Sarabhai (Ishwak Singh) and Dr APJ Abdul Kalam has been written and directed by debutante Abhay Pannu. He was handed over the reigns of the show while assisting filmmaker Nikkhil Advani (also the creator of Rocket Boys) on another web show, Mumbai Diaries 26/11. We speak to the first-time director on what he got right, what could've been better, and what we can expect from season 2.

Edited excerpts:

We are making a dozen biopics on sportsmen and freedom fighters. Why do you think it took so long to tell this great story? Are scientists a harder sell?

You're absolutely right. When I started writing this, one of the biggest fears and anxieties at Emmay Entertainment was: Will people be interested in watching a story about scientists? A lot of my family members saw the first episode and said there was too much science. But the idea was to make the story more relatable, more human. I wanted to tell the story through a human lens. I believe that telling a story about scientists should not be a hard sell. I think people are really afraid of experimenting, which hopefully, with this show, will change. As a filmmaker, as a storyteller, as a director, you are always trying to add drama, but here there was already an abundance of that in their lives. With these gentlemen, Dr. Bhabha and Dr. Sarabhai, I've only been able to touch the surface of what they managed to do. I managed to depict only 20% of their achievements. So we should tell stories about these people, period. People watching the show in 2022 should be able to relate to these characters set in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. It should seem like they were like you and me, but they aspired to do bigger things.

So what did you do to make the science more palatable?

I'll tell you a little bit about myself. I'm an engineer and a very bad one at that. I wrote the show thinking that I would write as much of the science as I understood. I am right in the middle of the arts community and the scientific community. So I thought if I could understand this, then people who know science well would say, 'At least they did the science bits correctly,' and people who don't know it at all would not feel alienated. But I was clear that we were not going to baby-fy the science. If you're telling the story of scientists, and they start talking like they are explaining it to children, then we've not done our job properly.

As a writer-director do you feel a sense of responsibility in telling a patriotic story? How do you take calls on tonality?

All the actors in the show, its producers and creators were conscious about not making it a chest-thumping, jingoistic saga. The story talks about a time when India was getting independence so the plot itself instills a sense of national pride. And I know that it is the norm these days, but I believe chest-thumping nationalism is something that should truly be avoided. We should not dramatise it to an extent that it starts feeling manipulative.

Let's take the scene where Jim's character has a run in with the British officer. What kind of conversations did you have while filming that? Because the officer was a bit of a cliche.

When I wrote the scene and when I was reading it with Jim, who also came up with some really good ideas, we were really conscious. We knew if we played it a little too much and added in a little bit of a patriotic background score, it might look like we were trying to manipulate the audience. We were conscious to not make it that. But when I look back at that scene, honestly, I feel that I could have probably gone with a little less. I'm very critical of my own work. We could have probably toned it down a little bit, which I tried to do in the way I edited the scene and the way Jim performed it. But the way we made the Britishers act could have been a little subtler. These are probably notes for the future.

How did you cast your leads? Jim feels like an obvious choice for the part. Did you even consider other actors?

It was always him. The day the show was greenlit, when it was just one page, Jim was on board. The producers, Sony, Nikkhil Advani, Siddharth Roy Kapur, all of them knew he was going to be Homi Bhabha. It was a no-brainer. Of course, it helped that he's also Parsi and a phenomenal actor but when I started doing my research on Homi Bhabha, I found that he was somebody who was very intelligent, a little mischievous, mercurial at times, enigmatic, always the smartest man in the room and had a wicked sense of humour. If you've met Jim or know him, you'll see he's exactly like that.

So he knew this part was being developed specifically for him?

Yes, he knew.

What about Ishwak Singh? He broke out with Paatal Lok but we don't know as much about his personality.

Ishwak had to audition. He's exceptional in the show. He pulled off a character who's so bottled up and still stands his ground. It's a very difficult role to play. Mallika Sarabhai was a part of the project from the beginning, and she was very clear as to who she wanted to play her papa. We auditioned a lot of people, some of them didn't work out, some of them were okay. When Ishwak's audition happened, we had just seen Paatal Lok a few months before and we were blown away. We sent his audition to Mallika Sarabhai and she immediately said, 'This is my papa'. It also helped that Ishwak had performed at Darpan (a drama company) a few times so she knew that he's a good actor. Leaving aside the resemblance to the real Vikram Sarabhai, Ishwak also has a similar personality. He's intelligent, has a simplicity in him, and a slight hint of mischief in his eyes. That is something that Mallika also wanted.

How did you get him to look the part? Were those prosthetic ears?

Yes, we had to add prosthetic ears and a mole. We've been painstakingly careful about trying to keep everything as authentic as possible. Despite all its flaws, I think the victory of the show is that people aren't talking about certain things that can be an eyesore, like bad prosthetics or wrong science or an incorrect depiction of Indian history. I want to give full credit to my team for working so meticulously on these things. My production designer (Meghna Gandhi) can actually launch a rocket unsuccessfully and can make a nuclear reactor. It will not work but she can still make it because that is the kind of research she put in for more than a year.

You've co-written the dialogues with Kausar Munir. Tell me about the decision to keep so much of it in English, and also quite contemporary. 

Writing dialogues was the toughest part, not the research. That's easily available. The moment you think of a period show, you start thinking of characters talking in a language that doesn't resonate with people like me today. Not only do people not talk like that now, but I strongly feel like they didn't talk like that earlier as well. We know of these people through their famous speeches and those are things that they must have prepared over weeks.

I know that I've used words and phrases that were probably not used then but it was a conscious decision. There had to be a fine balance between making it relatable for today, and yet making it feel like it belonged to that period. The idea of writing letters to take the narrative forward was helpful to that.

And yes, there was a lot of English. After a point, we realised that we were not going to try and make everything Hindi even if that meant making the show 50% English. I believe that Homi Bhabha and Sarabhai only spoke to each other in English because I've never seen any interviews or speeches in which they spoke in Hindi.

Why did you feel the need to add fictional characters? Were they an amalgamation of real people?

There were three fictional characters – Raza Mehdi, Vishwesh Mathur and Prosenjit Dey. The idea was to ensure that they drove the plot forward. They were not not completely fictional characters. Raza Mehdi's character was an amalgamation of various other scientists of that time who felt that they did not get their due. Then there was this whole conspiracy about Homi Bhabha's assassination that involves an airplane crash. We've embraced it and are going ahead with it because we read that in the 1950s and 60s, the KGB and CIA had put a lot of moles in the highest positions of power. It's widespread information that the CIA had employed a lot of on-ground personnel to keep tabs on what was happening in the nuclear program. That's where Mathur's character came from but making him so close to Homi Bhabha is something we came up with. We created Prosenjit Dey's character because we read that there were publications bankrolled by the CIA that used to run propaganda pieces for them. So all these fictional characters were written into the story to help drive the plot forward and to tell the story in eight episodes.

What can you tell us about season 2. Where is the story heading?

We've already shot about 80 percent of it. Abdul Kalam will be a very important part of the second season. It will talk about some of the most important historical moments that happened in our country between 1963 and 1974. We'll look at the rumours and theories behind Homi Bhabha's assassination, the formation of ISRO and another thing that I'd like to keep a secret for now.

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