Cast: Jim Sarbh, Ishwak Singh, Saba Azad and Arjun Radhakrishnan
Director: Abhay Pannu
Rating: Three and a half stars (out of 5)
Jim Sarbh and Ishwak Singh return as Dr Homi Bhabha and Dr Vikram Sarabhai respectively to take the serialised story of the life and times of the two legendary physicists forward. Sony LIV’s Rocket Boys 2, assiduously crafted, solidly structured and unwaveringly focused on its principal subjects, has markedly more drama than its precursor. Its tone and tenor are, however, no less solemn and steadfast.
By virtue of its very nature, the wide-ranging biographical tale, which is as much about the two scientists and the epochal work that they did in independent India as about their newly-free nation looking for a footing in a fast-changing world, is selective in what it chooses to pinpoint and what it deigns to treat as mere footnotes. One might with good reason carp about this or that, but there can be no denying that the technical attributes of the show are first-rate.
Rocket Boys 2 employs recorded history – news footage presented in the old television aspect ratio (1.33: 1) – to create the context for a free dramatization of true events and policy decisions that shaped the nation’s space and nuclear programmes under the leadership of Sarabhai and Bhabha and sparked long-term geopolitical ripples on the subcontinent.
The heroes of the show are always human, believably vulnerable to provocations and not impervious to moments of weakness. This isn’t an all-boys show. Regina Cassandra as Mrinalini Sarabhai, embodying assertive womanhood at home and in the world, has a significant presence in the plot.
Parvana “Pipsy” Irani (Saba Azad), having moved out of Homi Bhabha’s immediate orbit, has far less to do in Season 2 but, at an important juncture, the character serves as a reminder of what war means when it hits home.
Not all of the creative choices that Rocket Boys S2 makes are unblemished, but the Nikkhil Advani-created show is never short of being effective as a chronicle of a scientific establishment’s collective resilience in the face of daunting odds and of individual genius and enterprise of men – and a woman, Indira Gandhi (played with steely gravitas by Charu Shankar) – carrying the hopes of a nation on their shoulders.
Produced by Siddharth Roy Kapur, Monisha Advani and Madhu Bhojwani and scripted and directed by Abhay Pannu, Rocket Boys S2 continues to focus on the two remarkable scientists who laid the foundation of India’s space and nuclear programmes, occasionally opening out on its flanks to take in the political developments of the era and illustrate their ramifications.
In another key respect, the second season of Rocket Boys is no different from the first – it banks heavily on fiction to reimagine what might have gone on in and around the sphere of Bhabha and Sarabhai’s activities as they went about their missions with single-minded dedication.
The depiction of the events leading up to the India’s emergence as the world’s sixth nuclear power lends dramatic power and suspense to the eight-episode series. The scientists scramble to achieve their goal as American surveillance, inclement weather conditions and technical glitches threaten to knock them off their path. As the crisis spirals and the narrative hurtles towards its climax, the show loses neither focus nor restraint.
The villains of Season 1 – forces within and outside India out to scuttle the nation’s plans to develop the technology and weapons it needs – are given explicit play. Elements of an espionage thriller creep into the narrative – American spies and Indian traitors combine to throw a spanner in the works, generating tension and intrigue in a story that spends more time on studying the principal characters and their challenges, personal and professional.
While a young APJ Abdul Kalam (Arjun Radhakrishnan) is accorded a noteworthy degree of importance in the Bhabha and Sarabhai story, other scientists who played historically important roles in those crucial years are relegated to the sidelines, if not completely ignored.
The worst done by yet again is the character played by Dibyendu Bhattacharya, the misunderstood fictional scientist Mahdi Raza, who is thrown out into the cold for no fault of his own and denied a fair hearing. This is one true tragic figure in Rocket Boys that has the potential to drive home the fallout of rivalries pushed to absurd limits – a malaise that has plagued Indian science for decades.
Raza, however, remains a fringe entity, and his run-ins with the people who matter in the scientific establishment coming in handy only to lengthen the shadows. The fate that awaits the man is far worse than the one that nearly befell him in the previous outing.
Spotlighting the personal and the political more than the strictly scientific – Season 1 had struck a balance between the two – Rocket Boys probes the daunting odds that Bhabha and Sarabhai had to reckon with despite the unconditional support that they had from India’s first Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru (Rajit Kapur).
Constant meddling by the CIA, internal acts of sabotage, lost battles, geopolitical pressures and the spectre of budget cuts stand in the way of the two scientists as they labour on in a fledgling, cash-strapped system grappling with the more pressing needs of a nation seeking to augment milk and grain production.
The two men do not budge from their belief that a newly-independent nation can secure its future only through progress made in the field of science, a position that is firmly supported by the political establishment until Nehru’s demise.
The narrative spans from the 1960s to the mid-1970s, when India detonates its first atomic bomb, and banks upon dramatic events (mostly drawn from facts) and tragedies that deal massive blows to the nation’s ambitions. The mission goes on because the spadework the pioneers did put strong mechanisms in place.
As Bhabha tells his lifelong friend Sarabhai in an epilogue, “a true leader prepares a nation for the day when he is not there.” The reference is to Jawaharlal Nehru. But he could well have been speaking about himself and his fellow-physicist.
Rocket Boys, for all the blend of fact and fiction that its presents for the purpose of simplifying history, is essentially a tribute to the never-say-die approach of a generation of visionaries who set India on the path of progress, not just materially but also psychologically.
Rocket Boys 2 also touches upon a marriage under severe strain due to Sarabhai’s long absences from home, on perfidy, guilt and forgiveness, on Mrinalini Sarabhai’s assertion of her right to pursue her dreams as a classical dancer and on the succession war that erupted in the Indian National Congress in the aftermath of Nehru’s passing. It covers a lot of ground with impressive control.
Jim Sarbh and Ishwak Singh deliver performances that are nuanced and potent. Regina Cassandra shines bright and steals many a scene. Charu Shankar, too, stands out although the bandwidth that she is called upon to capture is limited.
As for Rocket Boys Season 2 as a whole, as Sarabhai would have put it, the sky isn’t the limit. It aims high and nearly gets there.