In an interview, dancer and activist Mallika Sarabhai talks about how for her father, scientist Vikram Sarabhai, science was a medium, not in and of itself, but towards the service of something larger in society. Science and technology was a means for upliftment and advancement as well as dignity for people, where nobody is left behind. It is the kind of development whose meaning is unimaginable in the minds of politicians and prime minister who use the word frequently and loosely.
The institutions Sarabhai created that still exist today are a physical embodiment of his visions. Abhay Pannu's Sony LIV series Rocket Boys on the life and times of Vikram Sarabhai and Homi Bhabha, two of India's leading scientists, portrays the engaging process of these visions coming into being, and the temperament and mettle required to fulfil them.
In that sense, Vikram Sarabhai was truly a leader and visionary. He represents "times when the tenor of life was different and when values were very often higher, and nobler, than what we see today." This spirit is what I also drew from the series.
It is precisely that tenor and generosity of spirit embodied by Vikram Sarabhai and the times he lived in, that takes a little more digging to find today. It is portrayed beautifully in the series visually, dramatically, and musically, with Achint Thakkar's brilliant score.
I have come across a number of articles denouncing the series for its factual inaccuracies and creative liberties. Notwithstanding art's non-committal relation to reality as one exactly sees it, and the fact that the series is backed by heavy research and help from the Sarabhai family, this argument can't see the wood from the trees.
Being situated in the country's increasingly degenerating political environment, as a young woman in my twenties, I see a lot to aspire to and be inspired from in the depiction of Vikram Sarabhai and his life's story, as well as the promising era of a country at the brink of independence.
The political atmosphere of Sarabhai's times allowed room for the realisation of his visions (not without compromises as we also see in the series). And while we are seeing a proliferation of private institutions and enterprises in matters of education, health and technology, Vikram Sarabhai was an institution builder, his purpose aimed for public good.
PRL, Ahmedabad (Physical Research Laboratory), Indian Institution of Management (Ahmedabad) and ATIRA (Ahmedabad Textile Industry's Research Association) are some of the number of institutions created by Sarabhai as shown in Rocket Boys.
Getting back to Rocket Boys, we also learn that because of the Second World War, Vikram Sarabhai cannot complete his studies in Cambridge and has to return home. Back at home and as a young man in his prime, Sarabhai is restless with a desperate urge to fulfil his potential.
It is at that moment that his father tells him that one door may be closed but new paths reveal themselves. Thereafter, Sarabhai goes to Bangalore where he meets Homi Bhabha and begins a new partnership and life at the Indian Institute of Science. In the present moment where a pandemic is habitually disrupting lives, taking away with it a lot of real opportunities, jobs, experiences, even one's youth, this narrative hits home.
It means that in life and in history – even for Homi Bhabha we are told, who couldn't finish his degree due to the war – human beings have faced the kind of disruptions, circumstances and experiences that the world is witnessing today. They have already walked in the path before us. Sarabhai's father affectionately says "Ladai kabhi khatam nahin hoti hai Vikram, duniya se ya apne aap se" (Wars never end, with the world or with oneself.)
In the show, Sarabhai and Bhabha affirm that there is a way to create new opportunities and paths for oneself. With their spirit of creativity, science and experimentation, Vikram Sarabhai and Homi Bhabha demonstrate that there is always a way.
Like in an experiment, Homi Bhabha says "failure [and making mistakes] takes you one step closer [to the goal]." If only we were taught how to fail in a highly competitive society that is geared towards performance. This series fulfils its role as art in its portrayal of life and history. It gives some hope in its evocation of the resilience and confidence of life and living, as well as renewing and creating ideas towards a way of living with the two scientists in the series as role models.
OTT platforms have countless shows filled with violence and gangster chronicles, in their quest for artistic gritty filmmaking. As if "true art" is only located in the depiction of violence and in the dark underbelly and "reality" of noir. Rocket Boys shows that art that instills joy is also a legitimate and desirable form of storytelling.