As Jawaharlal Nehru (Rajit Kapur) and Homi J. Bhabha (Jim Sarbh) smoke cigarettes and talk, the mood turns wistful and melancholic. Nehru rebuffs Homi’s refusal to settle down in life, saying it’s not just about maintaining happy marriages. A man must also think of his legacy. Sensing something dark and unusual clawing away at his old friend, Homi pauses to probe. “What’s all this legacy talk?” he asks. Nehru sighs; it’s already 1964. “It’s time for the old to give way to the new,” he says, a reference to his 1947 Freedom At Midnight speech, except the world has moved on and it’s Nehru who now occupies the realm of the old.
Such delicacy is the preserve of Rocket Boys, SonyLIV’s acclaimed series on pioneering Indian scientists Homi Bhabha and Vikram Sarabhai. Watching the first season last year, I was impressed by how much trivia — scientific, historical, social — were packed into the show’s primary writing and structuring. It’s a series that thrives on resonance, achieved via a canny arrangement of characters and events. Thus, in season 2, when Homi needs thorium reserves to make his atom bomb, there’s a callback to the Maharaja of Travancore, whom he practically bullied into submitting his monazite deposits in the previous season. And later, when his nuclear programme is in disarray, a dying and disillusioned Lal Bahadur Shastri provides the necessary encouragement from Tashkent.
Rocket Boys season 2 (Hindi)
Directed by Abhay Pannu, Rocket Boys both flirts and breaks with history. It’s frequently accurate — at least to a degree no other Hindi OTT series has attempted, or cared, to be. Yet, as befits a show about scientists, it’s the inventions, fabrications and bold overreaches that encapsulate the show’s spirit. In the first episode of the new season, Homi is trapped inside the reactor room at Trombay. The clock ticks away as radioactive steam leaks in. I won’t reveal how he survives the extended exposure; suffice it to say that if Harry Houdini and Captain America were looking in, they’d both be equally pleased.
Yet, this ingenuity peters out as the story progresses in the new season. The makers, in a bid to bump up the stakes, veer dangerously off course. A lot unfolds in the new season — intrigues, subterfuges, famous and infamous deaths. The geopolitics of the 1960s takes over a narrative purportedly about a specific set of nation-builders. After the crushing defeat of 1962, socialist, agrarian-minded India is moving away from the loftier plans of Homi and Vikram (Ishwak Singh). But America, via its CIA mole, is keeping a close watch. I was hoping the show would take a more personal route in mending the friendship of the Rocket Boys. Instead, it’s the national duty that pulls them back. “Only equal power can ensure peace,” Homi says in defiance of America’s hokey nonproliferation policy. Will Vikram, a pacifist busy with his space and satellite programme, learn to stop worrying and love the bomb?
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When it first launched, Rocket Boys was scrutinised for the contrasting treatments of its two Muslim scientists. Mehdi Reza (Dibyendu Bhattacharya), a fictional character, spent the entire first season standing up to Homi’s impertinence. The makers have explained their use of Reza’s religious identity as a narrative device, a way to toy with the audiences’ preconceived notions and prejudices. Even so, there is something uncomfortable in the way the series continues to draw out his humiliation, as Reza stands accused of a graver crime. Having escaped the stereotype of the Muslim villain, he enters another: the Muslim patriot who is misunderstood and expelled and must clear his name at all costs. I was expecting Kalam (Arjun Radhakrishnan) — progressive India’s favourite Muslim — to supply the necessary counterpoint. Yet, he remains a sideshow until the last few episodes, and there too as a custodian of Homi and Vikram’s legacy.
Pannu’s filmmaking is measured and refined. His visual detailing is precise, from recreating the shapely dome of the CIRUS reactor to the way an exiting rocket reflects off a windowpane. But the succession of corridors, boardrooms and office spaces in which the drama largely unfolds lends it a consistently stifled air. In night scenes, Pannu opts for a coppery colour grade, which effectively renders them monochromatic. The performances, though enjoyable, do not diversify enough to merit a fresh appraisal. Jim still has the snazzier role: fast-talking, irrepressible. Ishwak, meanwhile, plays it as straight as some of the Krishi Darshan programmes his character helps institute.
The series ends with a typical slideshow enumerating Homi Bhabha and Vikram Sarabhai’s various achievements. As it played, a stray detail caught my eye: an author whose book the show has referenced, a title card disclaims, “was later debunked as a conspiracy theorist”. So many films and shows on national pride these days end in self-congratulatory mode. Few, however, would sound that cautionary note. It’s the best tribute Rocket Boys pays to its leads — alert, watchful scientists who cautiously led a nation into the light.
Rocket Boys Season 2 is currently streaming on Sony LIV.