Rocket Boys Season 2 Series Review: A love letter to India and its men of science
The second season of Rocket Boys is an exhilarating tale of Indian History with thrills and heartbreak served in equal measure
The first season of Rocket Boys starts off with an argument between Homi Bhabha (Jim Sarbh) and Vikram Sarabhai (Ishwak Singh). The former wants the nation to have its own indigenously produced nuclear weapons. The latter is dead against it. The ideological differences between these two men are established in the first fifteen minutes of season one, before taking us decades back into the early days of their friendship. This is a very small detail from the first season of Rocket Boys, that bears repetition because unlike the first season, which mapped the lives of Dr Sarabhai and Dr Bhabha, Iruvar(1997)-style, the second season is almost entirely about building nuclear weapons, and all the obstacles that came in the way of the eponymous Rocket Boys. If the first season was about a nation in its infancy, trying to find its footing, the second season shows India in the 60s and 70s, with a teenager's fervour, seeking momentum and flight.
Creators - Nikkhil Advani, Abhay Pannu
Cast - Jim Sarbh, Ishwak Singh, Arjun Radhakrishnan, Regina Cassandra, Saba Azad
Streaming on - Sony Liv
EH Carr once wrote about the nature of historiography in his book, What is History?, “What is History? Our answer, consciously or unconsciously, reflects our own position in time, and forms part of our answer to the broader question, what view we take of the society in which we live.” While Rocket Boys is an elegant paean to the audacious, inspiring lives of scientists Vikram Sarabhai, Homi J Bhabha and APJ Abdul Kalam — one cannot help but notice how the series, intentionally or inadvertently, seeks to utilise the narration of our past to contextualise present-day Indian politics.
If you believed India changing its core diplomatic stance from peace and non-violence to the realpolitik of ‘offence is the best defence’ found its genesis in the recent decade, Rocket Boys will be quick to correct you, by displaying Dr Bhabha’s persistent efforts to build an atomic bomb back in the day.
Rocket Boys makes for an unambiguously entertaining watch, as long as it treads on the path of history. The series diminishes your awe when it teeters off into conspiracy theory territory. Make no mistake, the espionage subplot that eventually leads us to the tragic death of Dr Bhabha, is a masterclass in pacy, dramatic storytelling. While the first season required a patient, introspective viewing experience on part of the audience, the second season swaps a lot of that in favour of some classic, edge-of-the-seat, engrossing television. But the incorporation of conspiracy theories amidst a dedicated retelling of India’s scientific history is unsettling. It is not entirely out of place though, as the events behind the death of Dr Bhabha eventually act as a catalyst for the creation of India’s first nuclear weapon.
The ambitions of Rocket Boys, season 1 and 2, is lofty, to say the least - for it tells many deeply empowering and rousing stories of India’s past. Jawaharlal Nehru’s words ‘Tryst with destiny’ find tangible forms in the space program, the atomic research centre, the DRDO, the construction of satellites, and missiles, small-scale industries and the early days of connecting India through broadcast television. We also witness the continuous nurturing of classical arts and the inception of IIM Ahmedabad in 20th century India, through the stories of Mrinalini Sarabhai and Dr Kamla Chowdhry.
The series deals with the themes of legacy and ambition excellently. I was reminded of Mark Ruffalo’s lines from The Adam Project, where he says that to be a scientist is to die before your life’s work is done. Rocket Boys is not your average web series, we see Homi die first, to have his mission carried forward by Vikram, only to watch Vikram die, and have the mission fulfilled by Abdul Kalam. While watching these men die is terribly heartbreaking, it reinforces the philosophy that science and the nation transcend the mortal bounds of individuals. Jim Sarbh, who had once lamented over casting a non-Parsi actor for the biopic of Sam Manekshaw, has imbued the role of Homi J Bhabha with the delicate, sagacious eccentricity of a Parsi gentleman who is, above all else, a patriot. Ishwak Singh, in total contrast to Jim, plays Vikram Sarabhai with effective stoicism and serenity. To borrow an analogy from RRR, Homi is the fire to Vikram’s water. Saba Azad, Regina Cassandra and Arjun Radhakrishnan, as Pipsy Irani, Mrinalini Sarabhai and Abdul Kalam form a competent supporting cast with their limited, yet pleasing screen presence.
It is not often that one finds craft in a web series that is worthy of its own, separate mention and Rocket Boys succeeds enormously in its technical departments. The soundtrack of the series is effective, using the piano to punctuate its foreboding moments and the sitar to complement the story’s more optimistic portions. Combining multiple, interlinked storylines across decades is no mean feat, and the editing team incorporates many L-cuts to make this happen. The series uses lighting and framing very intentionally, the former makes you feel like you are actually watching light being shed on lesser-known events, while the framing shows us what the characters are exactly feeling without dialogue giving a human touch to historical events. The animation in the intro credits reminded me a lot of the dark, intriguing covers of Agatha Christie paperbacks, and much like a Christie novel, Rocket Boys draws you into its story, by peeling its layers slowly and smoothly, till you leave with a sense of satisfaction.