Having twinned the trajectories of pioneering Indian physicists Homi Bhabha and Vikram Sarabhai in Rocket Boys (2022), the second season faces the challenge of keeping its elements together even when the characters are facing opposite directions and new players have entered the mix.
If the intermeshing of lives separated by age, temperament and experience was a necessary conceit to depict the early years of India’s nuclear and space programmes, the estrangement too was a result of creative thinking. By the end of the first season, Bhabha (Jim Sarbh) is hell-bent on making India’s first atomic bomb while Sarabhai (Ishwak Singh) prefers to point science in the direction of community service.
The first season deftly laid out the commitment of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru (Rajit Kapur) to money-guzzling scientific institutions despite India’s meagre resources, self-doubt and differences of opinion. Scientific temper in a newly independent country was built by strong-willed personalities through healthy debate rather than slavish acceptance of the propensity of our early rulers, Rocket Boys cannily revealed.
Despite the creative liberties and dramatic flourishes, Rocket Boys scored in its imagination of a partnership that influenced the Indian scientific establishment in the way that the Lennon-McCartney union transformed pop music. The personalities of the heroes were beautifully set up alongside their personal relationships.
Bhabha and Sarabhai, scions of wealthy families who could easily have emigrated for better opportunities, opt to stay back to serve India. While Bhabha is in an open relationship with Pipsy (Saba Azad), Sarabhai marries the dancer Mrinalini (Regina Cassandra) but strays towards his colleague Kamla (Neha Chauhan). Future President APJ Abdul Kalam (Arjun Radhakrishnan) is Sarabhai’s eager acolyte.
The last season’s final episode gave a fair warning of the direction the show was going to take – towards the murky, underlit corners where espionage flourishes. Bhaba’s employee Raza (Dibyendu Bhattacharya) is suspected of treason, but the actual traitors are the scientist Mathur (KC Shankar) and his Central Intelligence Agency handler Prosenjit (Namit Das).
Based on a concept by Abhay Koranne, Rocket Boys has been created by Abhay Pannu and Nikkhil Advani. Pannu returns as director and screenwriter. The Hindi-English dialogue is by Pannu and Kausar Munir.
The “Foreign Hand” – a recurrent theme in Indian politics in the 1960s and 1970s – is played to the full in the new set of eight episodes. The spooks are now as active as the scientists, with various American agents, led by the foul-tempered Crowley (Mark Bennington), desperate to find out just how close Bhabha is to his dream of building India’s own A-bomb.
There are times when it appears that Mathur will vanish from a lack of exposure to sunlight. Raza, a fictitious character who points to a wider Islamophobia, behaves at times like a hysterical George Smiley.
Apart from the CIA-fed skulduggery, delivered through a thicket of snarling dialogue, equally disposable theatrics accompany the ascent of Indira Gandhi (Charu Shankar). One of the scenes pays tribute to Raghu Rai’s famous photographs of Gandhi surrounded by her all-male colleagues.
Neither Bhabha nor Sarabhai lived to see India’s first nuclear bomb test in Pokhran in 1974. While Bhabha perished in an airplane crash in 1966, Sarabhai died from physical ailments (and possibly overwork) in 1971.
Did the CIA kill Bhabha by planting a bomb on his plane? Was there something suspicious about the death of Indira Gandhi’s predecessor Lal Bahadur Shastri in Tashkent in 1966? These conspiracy theories are given too much play in a season that is less comfortable matching the facts to its version of events. But there an undeniable thrill in watching India hoodwink the domineering Americans by ensuring complete secrecy on the Pokhran test.
The participation of Vikram Sarabhai’s children Mallika and Kartikeya and his grandson Revanta (credited as an “additional associate director”) ensures that the well-documented affair between Sarabhai and Kamla is jettisoned. Kamla Chowdhury, an important figure in her own right who made invaluable contributions to the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad, has no place in a season keen on restoring conventional respectability to the Sarabhai marriage.
Also given criminally short shrift is Raja Ramanna, one of the key movers behind the Pokhran test. Ramanna (Rahul Dev Shetty) is a sideshow to Kalam’s implausible heroics. Stuck with following Bhabha and Sarabhai on their respective journeys, the new season is unable to open itself out to the possibility that there were many more “rocket boys” running about, with equally interesting back stories.
Some of the imagined conversations have a thicker ring of truth than the narrow perspective on the build-up to Pokhran. Bhabha has a memorable exchange with Nehru’s successor Lal Bahadur Shastri (Vijay Kashyap), in which the Westernised patrician tries to find common ground with the earthy politician. A true leader prepares a country for when he isn’t around, Bhabha says about the vilified giant Jawaharlal Nehru.
The tentative bond between Sarabhai and Mrinalini makes for several touching scenes. Bhabha’s utterly modern relationship with Pipsy remains one of the highlights.
The new season is altogether less focused and feels rushed in parts. Bhabha’s death – and the exit of a hugely charismatic and delightful Jim Sarbh – leaves a gaping hole that is never filled.
The consistency in performances by some of the recurring actors – Ishwak Singh, Regina Cassandra, Saba Azad, Dibyendu Bhattacharya – is a steadying element as Rocket Boys begins to spin out of orbit. Even in its supernova phase, the show snaps to attention on occasion. The opening credits are replaced in the seventh episode by Doordarshan-era animation of Sarabhai’s far-reaching television experiments.
‘Rocket Boys’ review: Dreams and drama as Indian science takes its first halting steps
‘Rocket Boys’ director on bringing alive Homi Bhabha and Vikram Sarabhai: ‘The story of a country’