Rocket Boys transports viewers to the early, heady years of Indian scientific achievement. Through the twinned trajectories of the pioneering physicists Homi Bhabha and Vikram Sarabhai, the SonyLIV series relives a time when a newly independent India, despite limited resources, made immense strides in its nuclear and space programmes. This was possible because of a culture of inclusive nationalism, scientific temper and respectful dissent, the show suggests.

Jim Sarbh, as Bhabha, and Ishwak Singh, as Sarabhai, lead the first season’s excellent ensemble cast, which includes Regina Cassandra (Mrinalini Sarabhai), Saba Azad (Parvana Irani), Dibyendu Bhattacharya (Raza Mehdi) and Arjun Radhakrishnan (APJ Abdul Kalam).

A second season is in the works, which will explore, among other things, the circumstances behind Bhabha’s death in a plane crash in 1966 and the consequences of Sarabhai’s extra-marital relationship with a colleague.

The Roy Kapur Films/Emmay Entertainment production is based on a concept by Abhay Koranne. Twenty-nine-year-old Abhay Pannu is the principal writer and director. Pannu spoke to about balancing a dramatic imperative with the telling of history, the casting process, and the ability of period shows to illuminate the present.

What have the reactions to Rocket Boys told you about how the series has been received?
Most people have really loved the show, while some have pointed out its flaws. The positives are the fact that we have tried to tell a story that has not been attempted before and should have been told a long time ago. That in itself is the biggest victory, irrespective of what the show has turned out to be – the fact that nobody had told the story of true nation-builders.

We didn’t know whether people were going to accept a story of scientists and their contributions. I am especially happy that people have appreciated the scientific accuracy and the jargon used.

We have tried to show people from all parts of the country and show the story of a country, in fact. There are people who love the fact that we have humanised the characters and not just shown them as cardboard characters moving from one event to the next. Of course, there are people who do not like that and who have said, Bollywood is never going to change, they will always Bollywoodify stories.

Jim Sarbh and Saba Azad in Rocket Boys. Courtesy Roy Kapur Films/Emmay Entertainment/ SonyLIV.

Rocket Boys sets up a clash of temperament and approaches between Homi Bhabha and Vikram Sarabhai. Could the series have avoided confrontation as a narrative device?
You don’t always have to use opposition as a tool. Events can flow without revolt. But you do need a bit of dramatic punch-up. I wanted to make the story palatable to as wide an audience as possible. In fact, fifty per cent of the reviews said there was not enough drama.

As a filmmaker, you are always trying to add drama to a story. I think I have barely managed to tell 20 per cent of these people’s lives. The drama was in abundance. I just had to pick and choose.

The series is based on a story by Abhay Koranne. How did you get involved?
Abhay Koranne approached Siddharth Roy Kapur in 2019, which was Vikram Sarabhai’s 100th birth anniversary. Abhay had written a concept note about how Sarabhai and Bhabha were good friends and they started all these institutions together. Sid [Roy Kapur] came to Nikkhil Advani [co-founder of Emmay Entertainment].

I was assisting Nikkhil on Mumbai Diaries 26/11. It was my birthday. Nikkhil came up to me and said, the only gift I can give you is that I will produce your first show.

We started work in early 2020. I didn’t end up going to the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, since we were in the middle of the pandemic. We spoke to a few professors there who shared presentations with us. We really wanted to go to the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre since the majority of the show is based there, especially the second season, but we didn’t get permission.

Rocket Boys (2022).

Period dramas can be about the times in which they are set or about the times inhabited by viewers in the present. Which one is Rocket Boys?
In general, I would like to make a period dramas that is, in a way, a commentary on the country and the society that we are in at present. A lot of conversations in the show have been consciously designed around conversations we are having today. In the first episode, for instance, Dr Bhabha and Dr Sarabhai are talking about the importance of going to a rally, whether it will change the fate of the country or not. It’s lifted from the conversation I had with a friend about going to a certain rally.

Will two characters in a story set in the 1940s and 1950s affect the viewer watching in 2022 – that’s the kind of period drama that probably should be told. There are many other conversations people have in the show that are not new or have been written out of history.

Were there any films or shows that influenced this series?
I had been assimilating knowledge from period films like Ek Doctor Ki Maut and Gandhi. But I never thought of Rocket Boys as a period show.

I was more interested in watching Aaron Sorkin’s West Wing. The banter and confrontation have sort of been derived from West Wing. Or, for that matter, Sorkins’s movie Steve Jobs, the way Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak are fighting as a presentation is about to begin. Of course, I am nowhere close to how they have done it.

Ishwak Singh and Arjun Radhakrishnan in Rocket Boys. Courtesy Roy Kapur Films/Emmay Entertainment/ SonyLIV.

What were the challenges involved in mounting an ambitious production that spans three decades and important events?
The biggest thing wasn’t getting the institutions or the scientific achievements right – they are very well documented. Getting the characters right took time, in terms of how much we could push. Getting the dialogue right too was difficult.

That is where our interactions helped. [Vikram Sarabhai’s daughter] Mallika Sarabhai, for instance, gave us very valuable insights.

The design team [production designer Meghna Gandhi and art director Pradeep Nigam] were so thorough that they can almost launch a rocket or make a nuclear reactor. The team was mostly young. When they read the script, they said, did this really happen? Did Dr Sarabhai really die so young after having started so many institutions? People who know Dr Bhabha are still sending messages saying, by the way, he had done this too.

Homi Bhabha and Vikram Sarabhai were from wealthy families. How did you delve into their worlds?
As a storyteller, you always want to tell the story of an underdog. It’s the classic example of a film that does well and makes you happy in the end. But here I was talking about people who were probably the most influential and privileged men back in the day. How do I make people feel for their dreams and aspirations and celebrate their victories?

Films and shows about privilege are usually superficial. I don’t relate to them. Bhabha was a very cultured man, for instance. Even a single letter of his is better written than all 16 episodes of my show.

The first thing was to make audiences understand that despite their privilege, there were limitations to their resources and abilities. They had to collaborate with people. They needed help, whether it came from other people or their own courage.

Jim Sarbh and Rajit Kapur in Rocket Boys. Courtesy Roy Kapur Films/Emmay Entertainment/ SonyLIV.

What were your initial feelings towards your characters, and did that change over the course of the production?
I am a marine engineer by training. I was a bad engineer, but I was a history buff. I always wanted to tell stories about this period. We in India don’t really tell the stories of how the nation was built and how we are what we are today.

I really looked up to them. But after I had done my research and started writing, I stopped worshipping them. Nikkhil told me, you don’t have to show them as the legends they already are. You have to show the making of these legends. So I had to look at them with a bit of irreverence. While filming too, my brief to the actors was, don’t look at them as heroes but as young men finding their feet in the world.

How did Jim Sarbh and Ishwak Singh land the plum roles of Homi Bhabha and Vikram Sarabhai?
Jim Sarbh was on everyone’s mind the day the show was greentlit. He was the obvious choice. Dr Bhabha had a certain enigma to him, he was very charismatic and intelligent and had an almost mercurial personality. Jim Sarbh is very similar.

When I knew Jim was going to be a part of the show, a lot of the character was inspired by my understanding of Jim. He too gave a lot of great inputs. There is this frame that is now being widely shared of Vikram, Homi and Kalam sitting on a sofa waiting to meet Jawaharlal Nehru. I had given a moment to Kalam where he is shaking his feet. Jim’s idea was, let’s look at Kalam, let’s all start shaking our feet and let’s shoot it.

Arjun Radhakrishnan, Ishwak Singh and Jim Sarbh in Rocket Boys. Courtesy Roy Kapur Films/Emmay Entertainment/ SonyLIV.

Casting Vikram Sarabhai was more difficult. We had to get Mallika Sarabhai’s approval on the casting We auditioned a lot of people. When Ishwak’s audition came to us – we had already seen him in Pataal Lok – we sent it to Mallika. She said, this is pappa. The innocence and the hint of mischief he has in his eyes as just like pappa.

It helped that Ishwak had performed a few times at Darpana [the art academy established by Mrinalini and Vikram Sarabhai in Ahmedabad]. Mallika had seen Ishwak’s performances and was aware of his acting prowess.

Regina Cassandra in Rocket Boys. Courtesy Roy Kapur Films/Emmay Entertainment/ SonyLIV.

It’s remarkable that the Sarabhai family didn’t object to showing Vikram Sarabhai in an extra-marital relationship. This relationship has been detailed in Amrita Shah’s biography of Vikram Sarabhai, but it’s one thing to read it in a book and another to see it on the screen.
Full credit to Mallika Sarabhai to letting us tell the story the way we wanted.

I wanted to show these people with their faults too. Plus, it’s recorded history. We wanted to show that they were not perfect. They faltered too, like you and me, but they went on to do great things.

The bit that I would like to work on in the second season is the handling of Vikram and Mrinalini’s relationship after they get married. Some people have told me that this is the best thing about the show, but it was difficult to write and shoot.

It was also challenging getting the relationship of Homi and Vikram right. If that had failed, the show would have flopped. That took a lot of hard work, and we spent a lot of time on it.

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‘Rocket Boys’ review: Dreams and drama as Indian science takes its first halting steps