Two episodes into Rocket Boys, there is a disarmingly meta moment. Mrinalini Sarabhai (Regina Cassandra) is performing a precise, rigid Bharatnatyam routine with another man — precision and rigidity being the hallmark of that dance form. That man is Revanta Sarabhai, a Bharatnatyam dancer, also the grandson of Mrinalini Sarabhai. Scratch the obvious oedipal interpretation and it is a moment of beauty, of a fictional grandmother and real grandson dancing together as fictional lovers. Cinematographer Harshvir Oberai lights it, like he lights most of the show, harshly and from the side, so their faces are always half seen, half dunked in penumbral darkness, like most great things in this show.
If you were to ask me what the second season of Rocket Boys is about, I would not know where to begin, and if I did somehow find a thread from the show’s fabric to pull at, I would not know how to tug it through its end. Sure, it follows Homi Bhabha (Jim Sarbh) as he is trying to build the bomb, keeping the United States of America (USA) at bay while ducking the threats and knuckle raps of its Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which doesn’t want India to become a nuclear nation. Sure, it also follows the various grayscale dealings that led to Bhabha’s “mysterious” death.
Sure, it follows Vikram Sarabhai (Ishwak Singh) as he tries to get India to shoot rockets into space, cudgeling for money from a country’s budget that cannot feed and educate its people. Sure, it also follows Sarabhai’s personal rattlings, trying to retrace the course of his fraying marriage with wife Mrinalini Sarabhai after his infidelity. Sure, it follows APJ Abdul Kalam (Arjun Radhakrishnan), Sarabhai’s mentee, briefly. Sure, it follows Nehru (Rajit Kapoor) as he is weakening — both in stature and health. Sure, it also follows Indira Gandhi (Charu Shankar) as she is ballooning — both in power and insecurity — while India lunges into new electoral and geopolitical landmines.
Rocket Boys is a show that is too much, but its too-much-ness is exactly what the medium of streaming was made for. With streaming, it was promised that you did not just have to tell the story of a person. You could also tell the story of a time and expand the linguistic landscape of your show, including more than one language. Rocket Boys blares from the pulpit of that promise.
To be clear, its muchness does not imply impatience because its world languorously unfolds, hands stretched in a satisfying yawn, over eight 40-minute episodes. In fact, despite being so densely plotted with quick cuts across people and time, Rocket Boys is one of the most patient shows churned out of India. Writer and director Abhay Pannu will sit on a shot, luxuriate in cinematographer Oberai’s ashen lighting, swell slightly with Achint Thakkar’s musical score. There are over three-minute-long takes, like that of Homi and Vishwesh Mathur (K.C. Shankar) — a fictional close associate of Bhabha, who is also the man responsible for selling him out to the CIA — dancing in a room while exchanging notes on India’s nuclear program.
Pannu will glaze us with an entire dance performance, because through the dance, the character is expressing hurt and betrayal. He will, through silence and a slowly closing-in camera, show Indira Gandhi walking up to the dead body of her father, and show how over the course of that quiet gaze, her spine chills into certainty as she decides to take the reins — shed the grieving daughter’s skin to emerge as a steely politician. These expressions, which could have been chopped into a dialogue exchange, are given an elaborateness, an edgelessness, a silence, a space to swell itself. As though Pannu is nudging us through his cinematic grammar — it is more than just pain or betrayal. There is more. Despite the much-ness, the too-much-ness, there is still more.
But as you flip through decades and characters, timelines and storylines, a sense of bluster enters through the cracks of the show. Characters feel like helpless pawns of their destiny — things keep happening to them, in the midst of which there is little life to live. Who are they outside the narrow confines of their lasting contribution to Indian science?
Under production designer Meghna Gandhi, India, too, feels like an art deco set. Between Thumba in Kerala and Trombay in Bombay, between Delhi and Ahmedabad, here and there, there is no sign of India. The light falls the same everywhere. There is a frictionlessness in the way geographies keep changing, almost as though it didn’t matter. Everything looks built, everything feels built. The buttons in the rooms, the switches, they all feel untouched. There is no trace of time. When characters speak of an India they want to serve, it seems like they are serving their own polished, abstract idea of a postcolonial nation that wants to lunge forward. Even Sarabhai’s contribution towards ushering televisions into Indian homes is framed in this show as a cover for continuing his work on nuclear bombs.
There is, however, a rare, strange maturity in the storytelling of Rocket Boys. Being a story of two scientists, the show insists that despite their brilliance, their real contribution to Indian science was that even after they died, Indian science continued on its steady, upward path — through rockets piercing the sky and nuclear tests hollowing the earth. The show squanders this maturity by producing fake villains — Vishwesh Mathur and Namit Das — to make their real protagonists heroic, to make each episode’s tensile graph spike at least once.
It is this villainy — shadeless, tiring, monotone — that undoes the show, singularly crashing it every time it rears its head. Dibyendu Bhattacharya as Dr. Raza, who gets wrongly accused, and must spy and sputter in agony is, similarly, a dull, shrill grunt of a character. The acting here is strained, cynical, and stilted, as though Pannu does not know what to do with characters who have only one thing to do and be on screen. Just tilt your attention towards his faltering representation of the British in the first season and the Americans here. Then, tilt your attention towards Sarbh and Singh, two fine performers whose relative bling and restraint bring out the better of the other, who are never allowed to be one thing. Pannu’s direction blooms in complexity and wilts in simplicity.
While it is disturbing that this show bought into and fleshed out the conspiracy theory around Bhabha’s death — to be fair, while also noting that the source of this is a conspiracy theorist — it tells us everything we need to know about the stakes of the show. Truth versus drama is often a war that the former cannot even hold its arms up against, so weak its prospects. Similarly, the eventual muscular posturing of the show towards India’s nuclear status is understandable, but disappointing. Can we make a show glorifying a nuclear scientist while also being skeptical of nuclear power? A narrative penrose triangle, if there was one.
Still, that dignity of storytelling, of narrating the story of conflicted people, of conflicted friendship — not just Bhabha and Sarabhai, but Mrinalini Sarabhai and Dr. Kamla Chowdhry (Neha Chauhan), her friend with whom Vikram pursues an affair — of conflicted marriage, of conflicted love, without ironing anything out, rings louder over these scrapes and flaws.
A tenderness, a rousing sincerity of storytelling comes through. That keeps the flicker of the show alive, even as it comes dangerously close to being extinguished. When characters weep — Bhabha’s hands on a freshly orphaned Indira Gandhi, Sarabhai weeping in the arms of Mrinalini Sarabhai, Bhabha’s last call to his lover, Pipsy (Saba Azad) — the show’s heart aches. Rocket Boys is, ultimately, a masterclass in staging comfort, in showing how people who have known each other for decades share space without clarifying or articulating this sharedness. Even as it rushes towards the end, with a last episode that leans too much on tension and too little on love, it leaves a lingering aftertaste of affection.