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#SeriesReview: A Rocket, A Bomb And Panditji: The Real Story Of A Shining New India

With ‘Rocket Boys,’ Bollywood seems to have found a clever way to tell the stories it wants to — stories laced with hope, of what India was, and what it must not be

Suparna Sharma Feb 25, 2022

Photo: Courtesy of Sony Liv

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Cast: Jim Sarbh, Ishwak Singh, Rajit Kapur, Dibyendu Bhattacharya, Namit Das, Regina Cassandra, Saba Azar

Direction: Abhay Pannu

Rating: ★★★½

Streaming on SonyLiv

It has taken a little over seven years and several ugly twists, turns, raids and trolls, but a few Bollywood worthies seem to have finally cracked it. They have found a way to tell the stories they want to, without inviting the wrath of the government.

Rocket Boys, an eight-part series streaming on SonyLiv, tells just the kind of story that right-leaning chest-thumpers love — macho stuff about India flexing its muscles by launching its first rocket and building its first nuclear reactor en route to making the atom bomb under the leadership of brilliant desi scientists. Even the nostalgia-laced sepia world the show conjures, where young men and women crackle with the fervor of newly acquired freedom, ticks many nationalistic boxes. 

But this story is layered with several stories that the government doesn’t want to be told these days.

Rocket Boys is not about how mahaan India was. It’s the story of the birth of an Independent nation that, in its formative years, had some soaring moments of greatness because of talented men and women who were driven by personal ambition to pursue their passion, but also had the vision and determination to contribute to the creation of a secular, democratic Indian state. 

Rocket Boys is the story of two “mad scientists”, Homi Jehangir Bhabha and Vikram Ambalal Sarabhai. But it’s also the story of the man who supported them, empowered them, who believed in science, created institutions of excellence and has left a legacy that we are still riding on — the story of India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.

The series is about how these three very urbane men from Cambridge together lay the foundations of a modern, industrialized nation. It is a story of their achievements, but also their humanity — the sort of stuff that triggers outrage these days. 

Rocket Boys is not the first series that challenges the right-wing, Hindutva narrative. But it is by far the most clever one. Like those characters in heist films, who have to slither and glide, duck and jump to avoid red laser beams as they make their way to a diamond in a glass case, Rocket Boys‘ screenplay carefully negotiates a minefield so as not to offend anyone while trashing the current political propaganda. It also takes liberties with the story and fictionalizes some bits to call out our biases and bigotry, and it does all this without touching the beams and tripping the alarm.

Rocket Boys plot is bookended by two wars — World War II and China’s attack on India in 1962 — and in between these two events is the story of Homi Bhabha (Jim Sarbh), a nuclear physicist who wanted to harness nuclear power for electricity and more; Vikram Sarabhai (Ishwak Singh), a physicist and astronomer who wanted to build a rocket and India’s space program; and Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru (Rajit Kapoor), who wanted to lead a democratic, secular nation that, although devastated by division, riots and suspicion, was also bursting with joyous energy, possibilities and hope.

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Directed by Abhay Pannu, Rocket Boys begins when India is on the cusp of Independence. That’s when we meet these men — a Parsi, a Gujarati and a Kashmiri Pandit.

At the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, led by C.V. Raman, there’s Homi heading the Cosmic Ray Unit and they are joined by Vikram, a young, wide-eyed physicist with elf ears.

Homi is brash, flamboyant, impatient, and his sharp suits and tie flaunt his irresistible oomph and moxie. Vikram is quiet, modest, measured. Often in kurta-pajama, he carries the rugged integrity and promise of khadi.

Together they inhabit a world that is lit not just by the glow of halogen bulbs but also the filmy chutzpah of young men and women who take a cue from Mahatma Gandhi’s call for “inflexible determination” to Do or Die and pull some benign desh bhakti pranks of their own.

Most episodes in Rocket Boys use some archival footage and each one is picked carefully to provide a backdrop and create context for what’s happening, and also to convey the mood of the nation.

It was a time of infinite possibilities and of daunting responsibility. It was also a time when Jinnah was talking about the two-nation theory.

With Homi and Vikram, we spend a lot of time inside institutes of higher learning, in classrooms and professors’ chambers listening to sciency stuff, hovering around as they conduct experiments and tinker with prototypes. It’s on one such outing, at Calcutta’s Science College, that we meet Dr. Raza Mehdi (Dibyendu Bhattacharya), a CIA mole and the series’ thriller track.

Running parallel to all this are the personal lives and loves of Homi and Vikram. 

On some evenings we watch them laugh, dance and flirt with women in puff-sleeve dresses and sleeveless blouses. We smile when Homi is drawn to the charming Pipsy (Saba Azad), a lawyer, and uses the best pick-up line ever, and root for Vikram as he tries to woo Mrinalini (Regina Cassandra), an Indian classical dancer.

After Independence, the story runs in three threads — Homi is trying to build a nuclear reactor and set up atomic research institutes, Vikram is trying to build a rocket that will take off, and Nehru is trying to lead a democracy that is secular, socialist and has a scientific, modern temperament.

Wrapped in these threads are several chapters of history. India’s first general elections in 1951, China’s attack on India in 1962, Lal Bahadur Shastri asking Nehru to accept defeat but a belligerent V.K. Menon insisting that India can win the war. Plus, a disquieting discussion about building a nuclear bomb as Nehru faces a no-confidence motion in Parliament.

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Even within this Rocket Boys‘ screenplay packs in a lot. There are labor issues to sort out at textile mills, opposition to industrialization, Kamal Chowdhry (Neha Chauhan) assisting Vikram in creating institutes of research and higher learning, Mrinalini pursuing dancing, a failing marriage, an affair and a daughter who is slowly taking charge of all official files and decisions as her father begins to wilt. 

Rocket Boys loves Homi, Vikram and Nehru, but it doesn’t try to paint them as flawless characters. Two men fail the women who love them, and one fails a nation. The show is also constantly aware of their cozy set-up, and their caste and class privilege, especially Homi’s who addresses Nehru as “Bhai”, while others refer to him as “Panditji”. 

The show’s power and brilliance lies in its compelling storytelling and politics. Written by Nikkhil Advani, Abhay Pannu, Kausar Munir, Abhay Koranne and Shiv Singh, Rocket Boys has strong secular credentials, but it doesn’t pause to preen and call attention to itself. It just knits its story with the bracing dignity and humanity of these three men and those times. 

The series has a lot of science talk and despite the jargon, these scenes are constructed like those precious moments in classrooms when teachers dazzle us with the infinite possibilities of science. Heightened tension is created around launches because of last-minute glitches, all of which are fixed by pluck and jugaad. Some are silly, some are true, but each one conveys how participative the building of modern India was. The story of how a small Christian village in Thumba, Kerala, relocated so that Vikram and A.P.J. Abdul Kalam could build their rocket is especially heart-warming.

Rocket Boys plays around with the chronology of events, creates some fictional characters and rivalries, but it does so for a reason. The thriller plot that involves Raza Mehdi and Homi Bhabha is not just to give credence to a conspiracy theory about Bhabha’s death and the CIA, but to also call out our latent prejudice. Rocket Boys’ writing and direction is intelligent, sharp, and all the actors are quite fabulous. But Jim Sarbh, with his shock-and-awe swag, and Ishwak Singh, with his unclouded principles, stand out. One lives inside his head, while the other won’t stop telling the world what to do. Together they light up the screen with hope and will leave you yearning for better times and taller men.

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