Rocket Boys is fuelled by vaulting ambition on the screen and beyond. The absorbing SonyLIV series tells the story of two men who were key drivers of India’s nuclear energy and space programmes. Behind the scenes, the show’s makers work hard to enliven a potentially dry subject.

It’s a heady mix of research and creative liberty, pop quiz-level trivia and a flair for drama. The narrative is driven by the twinned visions of physicists Homi Bhabha and Vikram Sarabhai.

Bhabha died at the age of 56 in an airplane crash in 1966. Sarabhai was 52 when he succumbed to a heart attack in 1971. In a remarkably short span of time, these men shook up the worlds of science and governance, created institutions that endure and helped lay the groundwork for India’s atomic and space research programmes.

Rocket Boys (2022).

Rocket Boys brings alive the faces many Indians know only from textbooks and postage stamps. The best casting decision is to get a Parsi to play a Parsi (not as common as it should be). As Bhabha, Jim Sarbh is equal parts imperious dandy and committed scientist. Ishwak Singh portrays Sarabhai as a gentler but no less obsessive soul, balancing his family’s textile empire with his dream of shooting rockets into the sky.

The funky animated opening titles (by Studio Kokaachi) lead into a handsomely mounted production that makes every effort to transport us back in time. The first season, comprising eight episodes, runs from the early 1940s to the 1960s.

Sarabhai has joined Bhabha’s research unit in Bengaluru. Independence is round the corner. A new India, led by Jawaharlal Nehru, is going to emerge after a long period of colonial rule.

Rocket Boys (2022).

Bhabha, who calls Nehru “Bhai”, pushes for great funding for research and the development of atomic weaponry. Sarabhai disagrees with Bhabha – the first of several rifts – but later acknowledges the rationale of the older man’s pursuit. Similarly, Bhabha squabbles with Sarabhai but stands by his side in crucial moments.

This Lennon-McCartney of the scientific establishment – vastly different in temperament and frequently at odds but willing to harmonise when necessary – represent the vibrant spirit of India in its early years after Independence, story writer Abhay Koranne and principal writer and director Abhay Pannu suggest.

The writers are admiring of their heroes and fond of reducing complex historical processes to a series of eureka moments. Scene after scene urges us to set aside what we might know of these real-life personalities and replace them with the Rocket Boys version of events.

It’s entertainment, of course, selective in its choices and guided by a need for dramatic flourish. The disclaimer used by the producers of the mini-series The Serpent, about the smuggler Charles Sobhraj, applies to Rocket Boys too: “All dialogue is imagined.”

Arjun Radhakrishnan as APJ Abdul Kalam in Rocket Boys. Courtesy Roy Kapur Films/Emmay Entertainment/ SonyLIV.

However, the show is no hagiography, despite every incentive to be one. A bold note of scepticism distinguishes Rocket Boys from other shows and films that revisit milestones in Indian history. The series treats philosophical differences as part of a larger scientific temper. Rocket Boys reminds us of a culture of respectful dissent, where even the prime minister could be held accountable for his actions.

A few contemporary biases creep into the period piece. Bhabha’s closeness to Nehru comes off as an early instance of a chumocracy at work. But there was much more to both men, as Indira Chowdhury revealed in her rigorously researched Growing the Tree of Science – Homi Bhabha and the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (Oxford University Press, 2016).

Rajit Kapur as Jawaharlal Nehru in Rocket Boys. Courtesy Roy Kapur Films/Emmay Entertainment/ SonyLIV.

Played by Rajit Kapur with a high-pitched voice and effete manner, the show’s Nehru is a mildly risible figure. While Nehru makes the case for being self-sufficient (Rocket Boys conclusively proves that “atmanirbhar” wasn’t invented yesterday), he appears to favour Bhabha because of a class bias.

Nehru’s blind faith in Bhabha is resented by Raza Mehdi (Dibyendu Bhattacharya), a fictional scientist. Mehdi is denied the postings he thinks he deserves and put through the nationalism test because of his faith.

Dibyendu Bhattacharya as Raza Mehdi in Rocket Boys (2022). Courtesy Roy Kapur Films/Emmay Entertainment/ SonyLIV.

If the Raza Mehdi track complicates the smooth trajectory of progress through unity, another Muslim evens it out. The “Rocket Boys” of the title includes a young APJ Abdul Kalam (Arjun Radhakrishnan). Kalam becomes Sarabhai’s acolyte, just as Sarabhai followed Bhabha a few years before.

The heroes ride into an uncertain sunset with women by their side. Bhabha falls hard for the lawyer Pipsy (Saba Azad), while Sarabhai locks eyes with the Bharatanatyam dancer Mrinalini (Regina Cassandra) in a poetic moment straight out of Satyajit Ray’s Pratidwandi.

Regina Cassandra as Mrinalini Sarabhai in Rocket Boys (2022). Courtesy Roy Kapur Films/Emmay Entertainment/ SonyLIV.

Although a whirlwind romance leads to marriage for Sarabhai, his heart begins to ache for his colleague Kamala Chaudhary (Neha Chauhan). The relationship is sealed in a scene that is beautifully scored by composer Achint Thakkar.

Rocket Boys sometimes lands a bit like one of the early experiments with bomb-making and rocketry. The outcome may not always be as desired, but 100 on 100 for sheer effort and extra points for gumption.

Full-bodied performances to play people plucked from the pages of history (and some from the realm of the imagination) ensure that Rocket Boys stays on course. Jim Sarbh and Ishwak Singh stand out in the estimable ensemble cast. The actors magnificently bring alive the pioneering impulses of their characters. Through their proud eyes, a country characterised by hope and enormous, tangible achievement comes into view too.

Rocket Boys (2022).