Rocket Boys — the new SonyLIV web series now streaming — is, largely speaking, a masterly act. As a character drama, Rocket Boys deftly balances the personal and professional worlds of its dual leads: the father of India’s nuclear programme Homi Bhabha (Jim Sarbh, from Made in Heaven), and the father of India’s space programme Vikram Sarabhai (Ishwak Singh, from Paatal Lok). Ruminative at times, Rocket Boys — written and directed in its entirety by debutant Abhay Pannu — reflects on the characters’ internal struggles, pursuits, and challenges. It chronicles their brilliance and perseverance (aside from their friendship), but it’s also not afraid to reckon with the fact that Bhabha and Sarabhai didn’t always deliver on their promises.
While the milder Sarabhai was more in touch with uplifting the lives of the unprivileged, it’s through the ferocious Bhabha that Rocket Boys touches upon that eternal debate about great minds. Geniuses and men of purpose — from Michael Jordan to, well, Bhabha — are selfish. They don’t think about what’s good for everyone, nor do they care about others’ ego, feelings, and mental state. Bhabha didn’t become the guy we know him by waiting around, he grabbed opportunities and pushed forward. At the same time, Rocket Boys is smart enough to show that this way of life creates powerful enemies — though the SonyLIV series happily slides into conspiracy territory deep into its run.
Rocket Boys is also smart enough to acknowledge that the opportunities that came their way — and this is true for both Bhabha and Sarabhai — were partly thanks to their privilege. The eight-episode SonyLIV series never shies away from dissecting that, though in other places, it does get carried away in projecting them as saviours in ways that feel too simple.
As a piece of longform entertainment, beyond giving us a window into the confluence of science and politics, Rocket Boys — set across three decades, the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s — delivers in sketching out the world of pre- and post-Independence India. It showcases the hopes, needs, aspirations, and demands of a brave new India. But it’s not always a pretty picture. With a mix of privileged kids in the picture, Rocket Boys shows how elitism paved over egalitarianism in democratic India.
And in other places, Rocket Boys also serves as a reminder of how science is so little about science at times. Bhabha might have been a great physicist, but he was first and foremost, a showman. It’s generally accepted that Bhabha overpromised to India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru (Rajit Kapur, from The Making of the Mahatma). While some of Bhabha’s rivals were delivering results and being ignored, Bhabha wooed India’s political elite with his showmanship. Rocket Boys is depressing proof that people would rather invest in something cool than something that has a better shot.
All of this comes together on the new SonyLIV series thanks to writer-director Pannu — previously an associate director on the Amazon Prime Video series Mumbai Diaries 26/11 — who is working off a story concept from Abhay Koranne (Bhavesh Joshi Superhero). Pannu co-wrote the Rocket Boys dialogues with lyricist Kausar Munir (83, Gunjan Saxena). For someone who has never made a feature or longform project, this is confident filmmaking — assured in its abilities, Rocket Boys is not afraid to move at its pace. Pannu’s direction, coupled with Maahir Zaveri’s editing, is good at establishing tone and conveying emotion. They know exactly how long to linger on moments to make you feel what the characters are going through, and to hint at what’s left unsaid and happening beyond the surface.
Pannu isn’t the creator on Rocket Boys though. That credit goes to Batla House director Nikkhil Advani, alongside his production banner Emmay Entertainment and fellow Rocket Boys producer Siddharth Roy Kapur’s Roy Kapur Films. This is the second time an Advani project has listed its “creators” in this weird corporatised fashion — the aforementioned Mumbai Diaries was the other one — where production houses are named alongside an individual.
Harshvir Oberai’s cinematography, in combination with Meghna Gandhi’s stellar production design, conjures the period era well on Rocket Boys. And after his immense success with the theme for Scam 1992: The Harshad Mehta Story, it makes sense that SonyLIV and Rocket Boys team would turn to composer Achint Thakkar. In a couple of places, the Rocket Boys soundtrack unknowingly or knowingly evokes a popular Bollywood score. But outside of that, Thakkar does some great work — in addition to (once again) delivering an exquisite intro theme.
When Rocket Boys opens, it’s 1962 and China has just declared war on India. Bhabha and Sarabhai’s relationship is at its nadir. While the pragmatic Bhabha believes India’s best bet is to announce they are close to developing an atom bomb — as a deterrent — the peaceful Sarabhai is aghast. Convinced that this is the wrong approach, he tenders his resignation. The new SonyLIV series then jumps 22 years back to 1940. Studying at Cambridge, Sarabhai is caught in The Blitz and decides to return to India. Shortly after, thanks to his father Ambalal Sarabhai’s (Muni Jha) connections, Vikram ends up in Bangalore at the Indian Institute of Science to do research with the Nobel Prize-winning physicist C.V. Raman (Karthik Srinivasan).
Elsewhere in 1940 at the Calcutta College of Science, Bhabha is working as a professor. The institute’s founder Medhi Raza (Dibyendu Bhattacharya) is trying to recruit him for good, but Bhabha knows he’s destined for greater things. He also seems to have reservations about Raza’s funding coming from the Muslim League. By the time Sarabhai arrives in Bangalore, Bhabha has established a cosmic ray unit at IIS under Raman. He’s not all happy about leaving Calcutta behind though, with IIS’ funding a far cry from Raza was able to offer. Bhabha and Sarabhai’s relationships turns into a mentor-mentee one, while the former also develops a rivalry with Raza who feels he’s been looked over at every stage due to Bhabha’s privileged origins and showmanship.
Though Raza is a character created for Rocket Boys, he is a version of the renowned astrophysicist Meghnad Saha who, like Raza, came from a poor lower caste family, was a rival of Bhabha’s, and opposed Nehru favouring a privileged class. Raza isn’t the only fictional character on the SonyLIV series. Saba Azad plays Bhabha’s neglected love interest Parvana “Pipsy” Irani, whom I imagine the creators fashioned as a foil to showcase Bhabha’s obsession with his work, and as a counterpart to Sarabhai’s love interest and acclaimed dancer-choreographer wife Mrinalini Sarabhai (Regina Cassandra). Through Pipsy and Mrinalini, Rocket Boys reveals its male leads’ deficiencies in the personal department — and it’s able to draw parallels thanks to the creation of Pipsy.
Rocket Boys’ leads might both be male and its world male-dominated, but the new SonyLIV series never loses sight of the fact that there were women on the sidelines who supported Bhabha and Sarabhai — but failed to have their care and appreciation reciprocated. And it makes for some smart humour too, upending traditional romantic overtures to show how men can be selfish.
The dynamic between Bhabha and Sarabhai is enjoyable and comedic in places — they banter and take each other’s cases — though Rocket Boys’ efforts at being funny don’t always pan out. In an early episode, it takes a smug tone against the colonial British. I get the idea but it not only feels anachronistic, but the shenanigans against the British are distracting and don’t really serve a purpose. Other than to fill some sort of patriotism checkbox. It’s unnecessary and a rare sign of Rocket Boys going overboard with its material.
But by and large, Rocket Boys remains steady as it lifts off into the stratosphere. Through its two genius leads, the SonyLIV series paints the vision and outlook of a newly-independent nation, where hundreds of millions envisioned and clamoured for a brighter and bigger and equal future for all. Along the way, it touches upon matters of caste, gender, privilege, religion, and ideologies — subjects that are still the bedrock of India today.
For all of Bhabha’s exploits though, his promises were left unfulfilled. In an early episode, as Bhabha delivers a passioned speech about energy self-reliance — a dream that we have yet to realise — and a future where atomic energy will take over from coal in lighting up all of India, Rocket Boys feels like a product of science fiction. After all, over 70 years later, the country’s energy needs are still largely fulfilled by coal. As late as last year, new coal mines were being auctioned. On top of that, India is the world’s second-largest importer of coal. At present, nuclear power is responsible for only 3 percent of India’s energy. The figure for coal? Over 70. If Bhabha were alive today, I imagine that would be mighty disheartening.
Rocket Boys feels like it’s nostalgic for a more optimistic India — an India that had the world at its feet, an India emerging from centuries of oppression, and an India where pluralism was encouraged. An India where anything was possible. In these dark and depressing times where everything India once stood for is being razed to the ground, Rocket Boys is both necessary and a response to the country that we’ve become.
All eight episodes of Rocket Boys released Friday, February 4 at 12am IST on SonyLIV in India and around the world.