In the ongoing debate on ‘who didn’t get his due,’ there cannot be any doubt that the country doesn’t thank its great scientists enough. Ignited minds like C.V. Raman, Homi Bhabha, Vikram Sarabhai and APJ Abdul Kalam have not been able to fuel the imagination of big-ticket filmmakers. Busy with unraveling the romantic chemistry, they have not been able to figure out the drama that happens when cosmic radiation passes through an atom.
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Debutant writer-director Abhay Pannu fills a yawning gap in popular culture by documenting the achievements of the scientific community in launching India’s atomic and space programmes into a rarefied orbit, after independence.
It is apparent that Abhay had a lot of material to play with, but he ensures that it doesn’t get jumbled up in the mist of formulae and lectures. He tries to walk the fine line between a pedantic documentary and a chest-thumping exercise and succeeds for the most part.
The eight-episode series pragmatically debates patriotism, pacifism, and the perils of the arms race.
Well-researched, the scientific and political jargons seamlessly flow into dialogues, and the scale matches the weight of the people whose story it tells. The series manages to transport us into the era when a bullock cart-driven nation was struggling to take a leap. The classrooms, the labs, the equipment, and the overall ambiance permeate with the scent of chalk and a spirit of adventure. When the big boys play with their toys, it generates infectious energy that is hard to define, but the goosebumps aren’t easy to ignore either.
Amidst the sprawling canvas spread over decades before and after 1947, the focus is on Bhabha (Jim Sarbh) and Sarabhai (Ishwak Singh). How they move from a student-teacher relationship and forge a life-long friendship and, along the way, inform each other’s world view, forms the crux of the story. Because of Sarabhai, Bhabha sheds his individualistic approach and, in turn, instills worldly confidence into the seemingly-docile Sarabhai. Their casual conversations open a window to the role of scientists in society.
Abhay also brings in the conflict between machine and man and, like any good conversation, it comes across as a two-way process. Not to forget the politics, espionage, and betrayal that find their way into the scholarly universe as well.
Putting the present-day controversies in context, Jawaharlal Nehru’s (Rajit Kapoor) dilemmas on China and the atomic bomb have been effectively dealt with.
In easily his most fleshed-out performance , Jim imbues the character with mercurial energy that keeps you invested in the series even when he is not in the frame. A multifaceted personality who could quote Einstein and Shakespeare in the same sentence, Bhabha comes across as a mix of erudition and audacity and Jim lives the contradiction effortlessly.
As the genteel but determined Sarabhai, Ishwak Singh proves to be an effective foil to Sarbh. His honest smile wins half of the battle in essaying a complex role.
The creative liberties and fictitious characters don’t come in the way of storytelling. What we get to see are the human faces behind the great scientists, with their flaws and limitations. Be it Sarabhai’s inability to measure the thin line between arts and science, or his struggle with understanding the ambitions of his highly talented wife, we get to feel the limitations of the bright persona.
Similarly, Bhabha’s inorganic bond with Parvana Irani (Saba Azad) gives us a sense of the times and how circumstances corrode relationships.
At times, the dialogues — by Abhay and Kausar Munir — feel very today in terms of the expressions used, but are consistently sharp and laced with subtle wit, conveying the differences between the big boys about reaching the same goal.
The immaculate casting and measured performances ensure that the problems with pacing don’t wean you away from the in-between episodes. Kapoor pitches it just right as Pandit Nehru. Regina Cassandra is quite magnetic as Mrinalini Sarabhai , who deserves a separate film.
As the fictitious disgruntled scientist Mehdi Raza, Dibyendu Bhattacharya provides an immensely likable counterpoint to Sarbh. Both Regina and Dibyendu add the much-needed texture to the proceedings as they hold their own in front of Sarbh. Arjun Radhakrishnan’s physical presence might not match Kalam’s well-documented persona, but his earnest performance makes up for it.
Just like the manual intervention won the day for Sarabhai and Bhabha, Abhay’s human touch puts this rocket of a series in the right trajectory.
Rocket Boys is currently streaming on SonyLIV