Rocket Boys review: India comes of age in SonyLIV’s formidable new series

Rocket Boys – the new Sony LIV web series currently streaming – is, for the most part, a masterful act. As a character drama, Rocket Boys deftly balances the personal and professional worlds of its two protagonists: India’s nuclear program father Homi Bhabha (Made in Heaven’s Jim Sarbh) and India’s space program father Vikram Sarabhai (Ishwak Singh , by Paatal Lok). Sometimes brooding, Rocket Boys – written and directed in its entirety by newbie Abhay Pannu – reflects on the characters’ internal struggles, pursuits and challenges. He recounts their intelligence and perseverance (apart from their friendship), but he is also not afraid to consider the fact that Bhabha and Sarabhai did not always keep their promises.

While the softer Sarabhai was more in touch with improving the lives of the underprivileged, it’s through the fierce Bhabha that Rocket Boys tackles this age-old debate about great minds. Geniuses and goal men – from Michael Jordan to, well, Bhabha – are selfish. They don’t think about what’s good for everyone, nor do they care about other people’s egos, feelings, and mental states. Bhabha didn’t become the guy we know by waiting, he seized opportunities and moved on. At the same time, Rocket Boys is smart enough to show that this way of life creates powerful enemies – although the Sony LIV series happily slips into conspiracy territory at its deepest run.

Rocket Boys are also smart enough to recognize that the opportunities that presented themselves – and this is true for Bhabha and Sarabhai – were partly because of their privilege. The eight-episode SonyLIV series never shy away from dissecting this, though in other places, it gets carried away projecting them as saviors in a way that seems too simple.

As long-lasting entertainment, in addition to giving us a window into the confluence of science and politics, Rocket Boys – set over three decades, the 1940s, 50s and 60s – offers a sketch of the world of before and after India’s independence. It presents the hopes, needs, aspirations and demands of a brave new India. But it’s not always a pretty picture. With a mix of privileged children in the picture, Rocket Boys shows how elitism has replaced egalitarianism in democratic India.

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And in other places, Rocket Boys also serves as a reminder of how science is sometimes so little about science. Bhabha may have been a great physicist, but he was first and foremost a showman. It is generally believed that Bhabha over-promised India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru (Rajit Kapur, from The Making of the Mahatma). While some of Bhabha’s rivals produced results and were ignored, Bhabha wooed India’s political elite with his showmanship. Rocket Boys is depressing proof that people would rather invest in something cool than something that has a better shot.

It all comes together on the new SonyLIV series thanks to writer-director Pannu – previously associate director of the Amazon Prime Video series Mumbai Diaries 11/26 – who is working on a story concept from Abhay Koranne (Bhavesh Joshi Superhero). Pannu co-wrote the Rocket Boys dialogues with lyricist Kausar Munir (83, Gunjan Saxena). For someone who’s never done a feature or feature film project before, this is a confident cinema – confident in its abilities, Rocket Boys isn’t afraid to move forward at its own pace. Pannu’s direction, paired with Maahir Zaveri’s editing, is good at setting the tone and conveying emotion. They know exactly how long to dwell on moments to make you feel what the characters are going through and to hint at what’s unsaid and happening beyond the surface.

Pannu is not the creator of Rocket Boys, however. That credit goes to Batla House director Nikkhil Advani, alongside his production banner Emmay Entertainment and Rocket Boys producer Siddharth Roy Kapur’s Roy Kapur Films. It’s the second time an Advani project has listed its “creators” in that weird corporate way – the aforementioned Mumbai Diaries was the other – where production houses are named alongside an individual.

Harshvir Oberai’s cinematography, paired with Meghna Gandhi’s stellar production design, evokes the Rocket Boys era well. And after his huge success with the theme for Scam 1992: The Harshad Mehta Story, it only makes sense that the team at Sony LIV and Rocket Boys would turn to composer Achint Thakkar. In a few places, the Rocket Boys soundtrack unknowingly or knowingly evokes a popular Bollywood score. But other than that, Thakkar does an excellent job – besides (again) delivering an exquisite intro theme.

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Ishwak Singh as Vikram Sarabhai in Rocket Boys
Photo credit: SonyLIV

When Rocket Boys opens, it’s 1962 and China has just declared war on India. The relationship between Bhabha and Sarabhai is at its lowest. While the pragmatic Bhabha thinks India’s best bet is to announce that it is about to develop an atomic bomb – as a deterrent – the peaceful Sarabhai is appalled. Convinced that this is not the right approach, he tenders his resignation. The new SonyLIV series then jumps back 22 years to 1940. A student at Cambridge, Sarabhai is caught up in The Blitz and decides to return to India. Shortly after, through the connections of his father Ambalal Sarabhai (Muni Jha), Vikram ends up in Bangalore at the Indian Institute of Science to do research with Nobel Prize-winning physicist CV Raman (Karthik Srinivasan).

Elsewhere in 1940 at Calcutta College of Science, Bhabha works as a professor. The institute’s founder, Medhi Raza (Dibyendu Bhattacharya) tries to recruit him for good, but Bhabha knows he is destined for greater things. He also appears to have reservations about funding Raza from the Muslim League. By the time Sarabhai arrives in Bangalore, Bhabha has established a cosmic ray unit at IIS under Raman. He is not at all happy to leave Calcutta behind, with IIS funding a far cry from what Raza has been able to offer. Bhabha and Sarabhai’s relationship develops into a mentor-mentee relationship, while the former also develops a rivalry with Raza who feels he has been watched every step of the way due to Bhabha’s privileged origins and showmanship.

Although Raza is a character created for Rocket Boys, he is a version of famous astrophysicist Meghnad Saha who like Raza came from a poor lower caste family, was a rival of Bhabha and opposed Nehru in favor of a privileged class. Raza isn’t the only fictional character in the Sony LIV series. Saba Azad plays Bhabha’s neglected love interest, Parvana “Pipsy” Irani, whom I imagine the creators fashioned as a foil to showcase Bhabha’s obsession with her work, and as a quid pro quo for the love interest of Sarabhai and famous dancer-choreographer wife Mrinalini Sarabhai (Regina Cassandra). Through Pipsy and Mrinalini, Rocket Boys reveals the shortcomings of its male protagonists in the personal department – and it’s able to draw parallels through the creation of Pipsy.

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Regina Cassandra as Mrinalini Sarabhai in Rocket Boys
Photo credit: SonyLIV

The protagonists of Rocket Boys may be both male and globally male-dominated, but the new SonyLIV series never loses sight of the fact that there were women on the sidelines supporting Bhabha and Sarabhai – but have not obtained reciprocity of their care and appreciation. And it also creates clever humor, upending traditional romantic overtures to show how selfish men can be.

The dynamic between Bhabha and Sarabhai is pleasant and comedic in places – they joke around and take each other’s cases – although the Rocket Boys’ efforts to be funny don’t always pan out. In an early episode, he strikes a smug tone against the colonial British. I get the idea, but not only does it seem anachronistic, but the shenanigans against the Brits are distracting and don’t really serve any purpose. Other than to fill in some sort of patriotism checkbox. It’s unnecessary and a rare sign that Rocket Boys is going overboard with its material.

But overall, Rocket Boys remains steady as it takes off into the stratosphere. Through its two genius leads, the SonyLIV series portrays the vision and prospects of a newly independent nation, where hundreds of millions envisioned and demanded a better, greater and equal future for all. Along the way, he tackles issues of caste, gender, privilege, religion and ideologies – topics that are still the bedrock of India today.

Despite all of Bhabha’s exploits, his promises were not kept. In an early episode, as Bhabha gives an impassioned speech about energy self-sufficiency – a dream we have yet to realize – and a future where atomic energy replaces coal to light up all of India, Rocket Boys smells like a sci-fi product. After all, more than 70 years later, the country’s energy needs are still largely met by coal. Just last year, new coal mines were being auctioned off. Moreover, India is the world’s second largest importer of coal. At present, nuclear energy accounts for only 3% of India’s energy. The figure for coal? Over 70 years old. If Bhabha were alive today, I imagine it would be very discouraging.

Rocket Boys feels nostalgic for a more optimistic India – an India that had the world at its feet, an India emerging from centuries of oppression, and an India where pluralism was encouraged. An India where everything was possible. In these dark and depressing times when everything India once stood for is being razed to the ground, Rocket Boys is both necessary and a response to the country we have become.

All eight episodes of Rocket Boys were released on Friday, February 4 at 12 PM IST on SonyLIV in India and globally.


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