‘Rocket Boys’ Review: Jim Sarbh And Ishwak Singh’s Performance Fuels This Gripping Science Drama That Launches Straight Into The Heart
You know that euphoric feeling you get when you expect something to be good, and it turns out to be just that, perhaps even exceeding expectations? This has been quite the week of watching highly anticipated titles that did not disappoint. And I am happy to report that Rocket Boys, the new SonyLIV series starring Jim Sarbh as Dr Homi J. Bhabha and Ishwak Singh as Dr Vikram Sarabhai, two of the most illustrious scientific minds of our country, is one well-executed, successfully completed mission. I’m here’s with the mission report that this biopic deserves.
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Biopics are always a challenge and one that several filmmakers undertake, but lose courage midway to see them through objectively. The subject of their biopic is often painted in shades of black or white, depending on what the agenda behind telling the story is. I would imagine that when trying to capture the life and work of two such visionaries as Bhabha and Sarabhai, the makers would want to tread carefully, lest offence is taken. I mean, these are men we’ve grown up reading about in our textbooks and revered. Dr Vikram Sarabhai is the father of India’s space program and the founder of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). And Dr Homi J. Bhabha is the father of the Indian nuclear programme. Both are Padma awardees, and Bhabha was even nominated for the Nobel Prize (the show opens with a nice joke about this one made by Sarbh’s Bhabha).
But Rocket Boys isn’t just about showing us these physicists’ life’s work and their ascension to glory. There are oodles of drama here, thanks to the politics and red tape and internal rivalries and difference of opinions amongst the other great scientific minds of their time, that has thriller potential. Not to mention, these men had interesting personal lives too, of which we might know only what textbooks and Wikipedia entries tell us. So I was glad that the series tapped into this hidden potential where Bhabha and Sarabhai’s already famous achievements weren’t centre stage all the time. It humanised these geniuses and gave us a nice, long look at who they were as young men nurturing sky-high ambitions, as people, as sons, lovers, husbands, leaders, policymakers, and most importantly as friends.
In fact, if you ask me, it is the friendship between Jim Sarbh’s Homi and Ishwak Singh’s Sarabhai that was the beating heart of this show, that really is a rocket launched and aimed straight for our hearts.
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Rocket Boys spans some two decades in the lives of Bhabha and Sarabhai, which means we see them through most of their professional lives’ important milestones, such as the establishment of the Physical Research Laboratory (PRL) and Ahmedabad Textile Industry’s Research Association (ATIRA) by Sarabhai, the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research and Atomic Energy Establishment Trombay (AEET; now the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre aka BARC) by Bhabha. And of course, the Indian National Committee For Space Research (INCOSPAR), the antecedent of ISRO established by Prime Minister Nehru in 1962 on the insistence of Bhabha, who was the head of the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), with Sarabhai as the chairman.
The show begins in 1962 when Bhabha’s decision to make an atomic bomb is met with mixed reactions. A particularly strong resistance comes from his long-time friend and partner-in-science, Vikram Sarabhai, which kick us back into the past, where the World War in 1940 sent both Bhabha and Sarabhai back to India from England. They meet each other at the Indian Institute of Science, run by Nobel Laureate Dr C.V. Raman, where Bhabha has opened the Cosmic Ray Research Unit and Sarabhai is an eager student.
It was at this point that it dawned on me that in the course of this show, I was of course going to see some prominent historic figures as their paths crossed with these two leads. After all, India’s tryst with destiny was smack in the middle of these two gentlemen’s lives. Even if fictional, I was low-key starstruck. Watching Regina Cassandra as Mrinalini Sarabhai to Rajat Kapoor as Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and Arjun Radhakrishnan as a young APJ Abdul Kalam (I tell you, I recognised him even before his name was revealed and was like an excited kid!), it was kind of fascinating. And all of these actors did an incredible job bringing these characters to life.
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There were some completely fictional characters in the mix too, who did a competent job in enriching the story. And I think that is the main USP of Rocket Boys. The show so seamlessly blends fiction with facts that you might as well call this a sci-fi series!
There were countless times when Jim Sarbh did something or said something that to me felt completely out of place and time for Homi Bhabha to do. And yet, so convincing and dynamic was his Homi Bhabha that I couldn’t help but let him have it. In fact, I wanted more. Sarbh’s performance is magnetic, and I found myself smiling and laughing when his flamboyant Parsi man lived his life without giving any flying Fs. The scene where he teaches a British snob a lesson is easily one of my favourites, and a better replacement for that Namastey London scene where Akshay Kumar does something similar. Jim may have done it later but I guess we can say Bhabha did it first! His teasing Sarabhai, that whole big brother vibe that he had going with him, his bantering relationship with his parents, his romance with Saba Azad’s Parvana Irani aka Pipsi the lawyer, and his professional rivalries…. My God, Sarbh was pretty much the sun!
And if he was the sun, then the handsome Ishwak Singh as the equally handsome Vikram Sarabhai was the calming moon. And I am not just saying that because he was clad in white for the major part! His Sarabhai is soft-spoken, often shy, quiet, sincere, eager and earnest, and quite the opposite of Bhabha, but no less charming. You’ll know what I mean when you see him romancing the woman who would be his wife someday. Rocket Boy juxtaposes the lives and personas of both these men who were polar opposites in ideologies, beliefs, value systems, and yet united by one singular goal: India’s progress. At the same time, I loved how their ideologies were often at odds with their own personal lives—Bhabha couldn’t take his own advice in his relationship with Pipsi and let her slip away. And Sarabhai, who held his morals high, wasn’t exactly living by them when it came to his wife’s ambitions and their strained relationship.
I could wax on and on about Rocket Boys, that’s how much I enjoyed watching it, perhaps one of my absolute favourites to come out of the Indian OTT space (pun intended) in a while. Director Abhay Pannu delivers a show that is quite a heady mix of emotions, the one most chiefly felt being a sense of pride at what these great minds have achieved. But this pride is different from what you’d feel upon reading about it in some book because you know them a little better now. The two leads aside, every actor delivers a terrific performance, notable amongst them are Regina Cassandra in all her poised glory as Mrinalini Sarabhai, Arjun Radhakrishnan as APJ Abdul Kalam, Karthik Srinivasan and Sir C.V. Raman and Saba Azad as Pipsi.
And I would be doing a great dishonour to not tip my hat to everyone else who worked on the show, but especially the title design, and that banger of a score by Achint Thakkar of Scam 1992 fame. That crescendo, sir, lives in my head rent-free.
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Science is about facts. So let me give one to you as a parting thought. Rocket Boys is easily one of the best shows you’ll see this year. And yes I know it is February, but if these scientists teach you anything, it is conviction in your beliefs. So do not miss this one!
Rocket Boys is currently soaring on SonyLIV.