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Rocket Boys Web Review: Do join this Bombay Jim!

Updated on: 05 February,2022 02:54 PM IST  |  Mumbai
Mayank Shekhar |

These are important events. Ideally, left to itself, Rocket Boys in singular, should’ve been the biopic of Bhabha alone — a far more compelling biopic. I’m guessing the material may have been only enough for a feature film, and this is a series. Also aware, given how the first season ends, that there will be a second

Rocket Boys Web Review: Do join this Bombay Jim!

A still from Rocket Boys

Rocket Boys
On: SonyLIV
Dir: Abhay Pannu
Runtime: 360 mins
Cast: Jim Sarbh, Ishwak Singh
Rating: 4/5

This is a work of staggering ambition and sincerity, mainly given that you won’t easily find its immediate equivalent from Indian television. It’s a biopic, yes; make that two, in fact. But from a field that, unlike, say, sports or crime, doesn’t instantly lend itself to obvious drama, as it were. We’re talking science, of course.

Most mainstream shows/films on that subject, you’ll notice, involve fast-talking blokes throwing up jargon, in order to establish minds operating at the speed of thought. That is, when they’re not blowing up stuff during an experiment. 

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There is only a bit of that here. Come to think of it, the two specific terms I remember right away from this show — predestination, and Nash equilibrium — belong more to theology and economics, respectively.  

Might even be fair to say Rocket Boys belongs more to precious institution-building, than science itself. To gauge its relevance, suffice it to know, at least two major research campuses continuing to make Indian science proud are within 30-km distance from where I’m writing this in Mumbai — Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), and Tate Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR). 

Both of which owe their existence to critical theorist Homi J Bhabha. This is his story. Along with Vikram Sarabhai’s, who went on to set up India’s space programme, best known to all as the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). 

Bhabha and Sarabhai being, according to this series, “mad scientists” in the inner circle of Jawaharlal Nehru. Who, in turn, was sworn to a modern, scientific temperament, for an independent republic he founded with committed compatriots, after the British left.

So this is, in a way, also the story of Nehru, and modern India. And yet, at no point, do the filmmakers behind this period series, with subtle but top-class production design, seem too overwhelmed by the task at hand. 

There’s tonnes of romance here, a lot of intrigue elsewhere, even some clock-ticking drama, and generally a lightness of touch, overall. Without once disrespecting the lay viewer’s intelligence, which is a superpower of its own.

What does that give the show, foremost? A sure-footed sort of credibility as it charts the story of two seemingly remarkable men over about two and half decades — between the beginning of WWII (1940), and the end of the Indo-China war (1962). Which is to say that at least the events/anecdotes/characters in the script do not look like they’ve been altogether researched from WhatsAapp University.

Whether that be the maverick scientist Bhabha — so close to Nehru that he called him Bhai, and treated him as an equal — bringing over truckloads of coal to a public reception, in order to explain the comparative value of uranium to India’s first PM. Playing violin at the party thereafter, while Nehru plays the piano. 

Or for that matter the presence of CIA agent/source/handler in the top echelon of India’s atomic energy commission. And indeed the cut-throat rivalry between Bhabha and a major scientific institution builder, Raza Mehdi (Dibyendu Bhattacharya), from Calcutta. 

To be fair, it’s not like a member of the audience (like me) knows any better. Though we’ve all seen the image of bullock-cart ferrying rocket equipment from back in the day, on social media, as a glimpse of how ISRO started. An essential element of Sarabhai’s story. 

What we also know is the China War dealt a major blow to India and, personally, to Nehru — the reverses often attributed to poor counsel of the then defence minister (VK Krishna Menon). Which is something we watch as well. While a debate on whether India should arm itself as a nuclear power carries on furiously. Bhabha was right at the centre of that debate. 

These are important events. Ideally, left to itself, Rocket Boys in singular, should’ve been the biopic of Bhabha alone — a far more compelling biopic. I’m guessing the material may have been only enough for a feature film, and this is a series. Also aware, given how the first season ends, that there will be a second. 

By way of work, Sarabhai, for the most part, is primarily involved in textile technology, delving in his family business in Ahmedabad. The space mission only much later becomes his. 

A reporter asks a young scientist APJ Abdul Kalam (Arjun Radhakrishan), given Sarabhai’s resumé in general, if this is a case of: “Jack of all trades. Master of none.” Kalam corrects the journalist, quoting that full popular phrase, which very few do: “Often times, it is better than being master of none.” Lovely!

The extraordinarily subdued, serene Ishwak Singh plays Sarabhai. Which is such a striking contrast to the passionate livewire ‘Bawa’ Bhabha, who’s charm-offensive and all-heart, all through. Surely in love, but not emotionally committed to the girl with the “Parsee-est name” ever, Parwana Irani, which is Saba Azad, who reminds me of Ratna Pathak Shah, somewhat!

The gentleman playing Bhabha, a Bombay institution himself, that we are talking about — pretty much burning the screen in every scene, is actor Jim Sarbh. The series has dropped on SonyLIV, which delivered some of the finest Indian shows of 2021, without grabbing much notice, because of the reach of the platform, I guess — Tabbar, Gullak 2, Potluck (even the lesser known Avrodh, from 2020). 

This is right up there with their best, including Scam 1992 (2020). We’re way past new year resolutions, but I think you must join this Jim, for sure! 

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