Since it began streaming on SonyLIV earlier this month, Rocket Boys has received love and praise from viewers and industry pundits.
Created by Nikkhil Advani, the web show was written and directed by rookie filmmaker Abhay Pannu. It’s the story of iconic Indian scientists Homi Bhabha and Vikram Sarabhai, played by Jim Sarbh and Ishwak Singh respectively.
Taking advantage of the success of the first season, Pannu is already working on the next episode. Here he talks about everything – his fascination with India’s most beloved heroes, his experience leading this ambitious project, working with Sarbh and others, and being an outsider in such an elusive and star-studded industry. than Bollywood.
What prompted you to do a show about the life of Homi Bhabha and Vikram Sarabhai?
I didn’t think this story had been told before. There are incredible stories that remain untold, unexplored. Stories of great people who helped shape our country as we know it today. I also want to tell the story of JRD Tata one day.
However, this idea was not entirely mine. It was brought to me by Nikkhil Advani and Siddharth Roy Kapur who wanted to collaborate on the 100and birthday of Vikram Sarabhai. So they had the idea and the concept and from there I started researching, meeting the families and writing the story.
Why start with a web show? Weren’t you tempted to make your directorial debut with a film?
You get to tell a story a little better through a show these days. It’s a story that couldn’t fit in a two and a half hour movie. In four and a half hours, we had the opportunity to delve into the lives of these remarkable scientists. Even then, it was difficult for me to choose which events to show. What I managed to show with the first season of Rocket Boys is only 25% of what these people had done in the 23 years covered by the first season. There could be no other way than a show to tell this story. I don’t think a movie would have done justice to these people’s lives. But if I am given the opportunity later, I would like to make a film.
Given that Rocket Boys is based on national heroes and monumental historical events, was there a sense of responsibility or pressure to show them in a good light?
Homi Bhabha and Vikram Sarabhai are legendary figures whose contributions to the country are immeasurable. They are the architects of modern India. But when they did these things, they didn’t know they were going to be what they were doing. They were just men trying to do the right thing. Sometimes they did and other times they failed. We tried to show everything, including all their flaws and the things they didn’t do well. I hope we told a very balanced story where it’s not just “look at us, we’re so good”. We were very aware of that.
The research and preparation had to be extensive.
It was. I like to joke that everyone who worked on Rocket Boys, even if they weren’t nuclear physicists, can now launch a rocket without success. The show had been in development for over three years. It took us over a year to write it.
The milestones of these people are very well documented. It was therefore not difficult to establish the facts. But we were lucky to have family members, at least with Vikram Sarabhai because Mallika Sarabhai (his daughter) was constantly helping us, providing us with the small details. And I had a great team to make sure we got the time, the right time.
How much of the show is fictionalized?
The events depicted in the show are true. However, the conversations these people had behind closed doors were fictitious. We have also included very important fictional characters to support the story. The challenges these people faced, the struggle they had to go through to do what they wanted, it was all dramatized. Not entirely fictional, but dramatized to advance the story. The canvas is real and we painted inside.
What was the hardest part of writing and directing a series like Rocket Boys?
Humanize the characters. As times change, people want relevant content. The show is set between the 1940s and 1970s, but I wanted to make sure someone watching it in 2022 could understand the issues, challenges, and emotions of those people. And yet, at the same time, I didn’t want it to not become period-appropriate or era-specific. Getting that mix, that balance in writing and directing was the hardest part. Everything else falls into place if you have a good team, a reliable support system, and talented actors on board. The one thing we were all very aware of was making it accessible. If we managed to do that with the show, it’s a win for us.
Jim Sarbh has nothing but praise for you. What was it like working with him and the others?
Jim is an actor who can really spoil a director. He was so cooperative from the start and very patient. We worked in the workshop as soon as the first draft of the script was ready. He has a very good sense of storytelling. He had great contributions to share on the script, on how we could improve the scene. Some days on set, there were times when I just forgot about everything and enjoyed the show. What he’s done with his character and the show, people are really going to sit up and take notice.
As an outsider in the industry, was it hard to find your way? How has your journey been so far?
It was exceptional. I am truly blessed to have had the opportunities that I have. I never saw not being from a film background as an obstacle or a problem because times really change. People want to hear strangers come in and tell stories that the Bollywood world doesn’t know. It’s really refreshing to see that.
A major learning that you would like to share with ambitious filmmakers?
Watch as many movies as possible. Read their scripts. Then watch that movie again. And then read the script again. You can easily get scripts from the internet. Just download them, watch those movies and read those scripts. Find out who your favorite writer-director is. Keep watching how they edit their shows and movies. Understand their way of directing and cutting a scene. People do it a lot here but I still think it’s not done enough.
Also, it is very important to keep working hard and being in the right place at the right time. Often people are at the right time, but they haven’t worked hard enough to use it to its full potential and actually get what they want out of it.