Rocket Boys On SonyLIV Is A Sincere, Soaring Hat-Tip To ‘Nehru’s Mad Scientists’

Jim Sarbh plays Homi Bhabha and Ishwak Singh plays Vikram Sarabhai in Rocket Boys, set in the India between 1940-1960
Rocket Boys On SonyLIV Is A Sincere, Soaring Hat-Tip To ‘Nehru’s Mad Scientists’

Director: Abhay Pannu
Writers: Nikkhil Advani, Abhay Koranne, Kausar Munir, Abhay Pannu
Cast: Jim Sarbh, Ishwak Singh, Regina Cassandra, Rajit Kapoor, Arjun Radhakrishnan, Dibyendu Bhattacharya, Saba Azad, Namit Das
Harshvir Oberai
Maahir Zaveri

To begin at the beginning, there's the visual ingeniousness and specificity of Rocket Boys' opening credits sequence, designed by Studio Kokaachi: where the smoke left behind a screeching rocket falls on the earth as flowers; where a man holding a telescope looks at roving planets which then become agitated but well-behaved atoms being studied under a microscope, making our smallness feel cyclical, and the universe's vastness bearable; where the jetting pulse of a radiation looks like a rocket being launched during war, causing fission, the splitting of the atom and the human soul; where a rock being studied becomes a mountain being whipped along by a war-time fighter plane throwing down fire and bedlam like a dragon. War and physics often go hand in hand, and Rocket Boys uses the former as the background to bring to the fore the latter.

We begin in 1962, when India is losing the war to China's superior military apparatus. Physicist Homi Bhabha (Jim Sarbh) is pushing for atomic bombs — not to be deployed, but as a deterrent, to seem imposing and threatening as a nation with a bomb, without being barbaric — while Vikram Sarabhai (Ishwak Singh), once Bhabha's protégé, then friend, then estranged friend, is actively against this. Why produce something that could destroy continents of time and space, just for a threat? We recognize so much of who these people are in their opinions.

The science here isn't simplified — it is not meant to make sense as much as signal that the makers know what they are talking about. (Though there are some minor blips, like a mention of Akashvani in the 1940s when All India Radio was only renamed Akashvani in 1957) Control rod, heating mechanism, cosmic rays, this-that. Unlike Vidya Balan's puri-physics in Mission Mangal, there is not even much of an attempt made to simplify it here. We first meet Homi Bhabha trying to teach a classroom of students who are stand-ins for our ignorance, but quickly the excitement of jargons takes over and we are left marveling at the enthusiasm for science as opposed to the science itself. Could the writing have been more palatable, then?

At the outset, there is something very odd about the chemistry between Jim Sarbh and Ishwak Singh. Odd, not in the sense that they seem like lovers more than colleagues — which they certainly do — but there is little sense of how their relationship develops, from strangers to protégé-mentor to companion to being iced out of one another's lives. Sarabhai inspiring Bhabha to take up the national cause feels too sudden. How does an overhaul of ideology take place so quickly? When Sarbh tells Singh to call him 'Homi' and not 'Sir', it doesn't feel like Homi Bhabha, but like Jim Sarbh, whose Jim-ness — an endearing Parsi eccentricity — rubbed off, perhaps, a little more than it should have on the character. Or perhaps we are so used to the rigid, diamond-spined depiction of characters in the biopic glut, that seeing such irreverence on screen is first confusing, then endearing. Or perhaps we are not used to seeing mentors and proteges share space with antagonism, affection, and admiration all at once. Either way, the oddness is immediately apparent.

Soon, this narrative haste — of establishing Bhabha and Sarabhai as friends — also begins to make sense. For Rocket Boys is not about just these two men. It's about a time. And it's about reflecting our time in it. The canvas is so large, the palette so egregious, that the show is constantly being threatened to be undone by its own ambition. After the first two — of eight — episodes, Bhabha and Sarabhai have their own tracks, with brief moments where their journeys twine. The emotional arcs become unwieldy, and the addition of a young APJ Abdul Kalam (Arjun Radhakrishnan), though evocative, makes the show feel more symbolic and politically necessary than artistically valid — which, also, it certainly is. There is symmetry in the storytelling — both Bhabha and Sarabhai get a launch sequence, Bhabha for his nuclear reactor and Sarabhai for his rocket; Sarabhai gets a "mistress", Bhabha gets heartbroken. (Dr. Kamla Chowdhry, Sarabhai's colleague, then lover, is given a fair amount of space but is just as unceremoniously whipped out of the narrative.)

But the show is also not entirely sure of its tone. What begins as a string of mood pieces, with long, trailing conversations on science and ethics, begins to grunt in drama that is too easily resolved. The show plunges its characters into deep professional chaos only to redeem them with masala jugaad. When Vikram Sarabhai makes speeches like a politician, neither is he nor are we convinced. When Homi Bhabha embarrasses the British — and of course they play the British as the British have been played usually, awfully, stereotypical wastrels and comical mongrels — it requires of him a physical comedy we just can't imagine the real Homi Bhabha indulging in. It is a testament to both Ishwak Singh's earnest quietness — his confused, defeated, disappointed gaze when Homi Bhabha waxes eloquent on the need for bombs is an introduction to both Sarabhai's character and Singh's depth as a performer — and Jim Sarbh's electric presence that these scenes don't collapse into the inane.

The biggest casualty of this unwieldiness, however, is the character of Mrinalini Sarabhai (Regina Cassandra), Sarabhai's wife. Their courting was charming, their marriage, sudden — Vikram did not even tell his parents about it — and the dutiful creation of children, entirely on the side. Their marriage feels unresolved, which might be fine since people rarely live resolved lives. (We are also told a second season is already in the making) But this vacuum feels like a narrative blind spot.

The show, instead, is raring to go, head ramming into the putrid genre of patriotism which it is trying to neaten and quieten with its sincerity. The show, however, ends with a disappointing muscular stance — that India needs to be a nuclear state, with both Sarabhai and Bhabha in agreement. Sarabhai finally relents that a civilization's pride and security must be attached to civilization demolishing bombs. Even Rocket Boys' sincerity has its limits. Then, there is also the curious case of fictional villains (Dibyendu Bhattacharya, Namit Das) in the story of real people. Rocket Boys leans heavily into the conspiracy theory of the CIA being interested in Homi Bhabha's demise. What began as sincere love — "Apne kaam aur izzat se desh ko majboot banana" — soon has strains of hatred swirling in from the edges of the story.

To make great music is one thing. But Rocket Boys does one better, folding the music effectively within its drama, without making the music the point.

SonyLIV has been, for a while, injecting different Indias into its stories — Satyajit Ray and filter coffee in Scam 1992, a glimpse of Manipuri, a dance form we rarely see on screen in the grunting, masculine, chest-pummeled Avrodh, and here too, we have the Parsis, the Tamils (Cassandra's pronunciation of 'Tamil', 'Bharatnatyam' is so effortless, musical, and true to the language), the Gujaratis, the Bengalis. There is a constructed pan-Indian-ness that doesn't feel forced. This happens in the background as the two men, the "mad scientists" of Nehru (Rajit Kapur), with long fingers, one with a mole and big ears, one with a middle-parting, both with paunches as they age into a narrative that is rattling in many different directions. Rocket Boys, written and directed by Abhay Pannu, for all its flaws, is a feast of emotions, bursting with pride, pushing back at malice for the most part. At its finest, it is a soaring, engaging drama of two friends busy making their personal missions a national cause.

Which brings me to the music of the show. Achint Thakkar tasted fame after scoring Scam 1992, when its title track became a sort of anthem of doomed-cool, of collar-up-consumerism. But what I did not realize while watching Scam 1992 was when my affection for a musical piece used specifically for a character would become affection for the character itself. I would wait for Anjali Barot, playing the wife of Harshad Mehta (Prateek Gandhi), to appear, for every time she did, she brought with her Achint Thakkar's track — 'A Simple Man' — with the bagpipes swelling in an ecstatic, hopeful, and sensuous mix. Here, too, Thakkar brings his charm, armed with violins. Violins! Every time they strung, I was pulp.

The scene where the Indian flag is unfurled to Nehru's 'Tryst With Destiny' speech will remain one of the most sincere, striking, and effective moments of patriotism on screen. It was not just the moment though. It was also the music and the quiet camera of Harshvir Oberai (which occasionally flares in the show, to spectacular effect, like when it zooms in on a character over table lamps).When the clip came out last year, as a teaser, I wept. I wasn't alone. Right after that scene we are introduced to a teenage Abdul Kalam, in Rameshwaram, Tamil Nadu. This narrative choice is arbitrary, even too convenient and if it weren't for the music, perhaps even flat. And yet, we sputter and fumble watching that scene, Kalam breaking up a discussion on bigotry and waxing eloquent in Urdu. (Much later, when he is again reintroduced, without the swelling score, the moral flatness of this character becomes apparent — where a young Abdul Kalam walks around as if he knows he is, soon, going to become president, mythologized with an erect spine on streaming, as the Muslim working class counter-point to Sarabhai and Bhabha's genius that was burnished by their privilege.)

Similarly, Thakkar lends even the most banal scenes — like Bhabha trying to explain particle physics to students — life, and the most dramatic — like Mrinalini on stage performing, waiting, while her husband is elsewhere — pathos. To make great music is one thing. But Rocket Boys does one better, folding the music effectively within its drama, without making the music the point. The point was after all, the thin line separating genius from madness, love from duty, personal from national.

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