Rocket Boys is stunning, among Web’s cream

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Jim Sarbh as Dr. Homi Bhabha and Ishwak Singh as Dr. Vikram Sarabhai in Rocket Boys. Photo: Trailer Video Grab

A textbook on how biographical web series should be conceived and presented, Rocket Boys is a stunning document on Dr. Homi Bhabha and Dr. Vikram Sarabhai, and their achievements up to the early 1960s. It also brings in their strange but lovable friendship studded with personal quarrels, all aimed, as it is pointed out, towards the progress and well-being of India.

Playing a significant role in the post-Partition part of the story is A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, who evolves from a mere student from a humble South Indian family to a key member of the Indian National Committee for Space Research (INCOSPAR).

The 8-episode series is among the cream of what we have seen so far on the Indian web, and would have a high, if not supreme, ranking among the Top 10, among which we could rank Scam 1992, another biopic, as well. This series is more realistic, with a perfect blend of fact and fictional dramatization. It is equally strong, if not stronger, in how successive episodes build up the drama, almost placidly, and yet in a manner that it becomes a challenge not to binge-watch!

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Rocket Boys opens momentously with an ideological clash between Homi Bhabha (Jim Sarbh) and Vikram Sarabhai (Ishwak Singh)—on the necessity for India, a peace-loving country, of making an atomic bomb. It ends even more brilliantly—Raza (Dibyendu Bhattacharya) warns Bhabha of a threat to his life and he laughs it off, but there is a cliffhanger-that-is-not: a sequence that must be seen rather than described here. This is a clever dramatic ploy: a second season is very unlikely because only about two years of Bhabha’s life remain before his death in an air-crash in 1966, but it sets the tone for a possible mystery around his death that we will never know.

The series glides through their personal issues: Sarabhai’s passing affair with a colleague, Kamla (Neha Chauhan), Bhabha’s long but futile attachment to Parwana Irani (Saba Azad), Sarabhai’s amorous yet “practical” bond with wife and passionate dancer Mrinalini (Regina Cassandra), the antagonism between Bhabha and Raza, who is a fictitious character cleverly employed for drama and the enigmatic Mathur (K.C. Shankar)’s devotion to Bhabha.

What remains with us long after the series is over is the informal easy camaraderie between the two scientists, their high regards for Kalam (Arjun Radhakrishnan), which are reciprocated, and their tendency to have volatile spats with each other. Some dramatic incidents, like the manual rocket launch on a Kerala beach, sound dramatic but have happened in real life. At the same time, Bhabha’s tumultuous but generally bonhomie-laden relationship with Pandit Nehru (Rajit Kapur) also makes a mark, as it is crucial to several of the duo’s accomplishments.

Full marks to the creator Nikkhil Advani, his writers and director for choosing the  perfect parts from the two scientists’ lives to highlight here. The narrative, thus, does not become dry, or too highbrow, for even a normal viewer not conversant with advanced science. Though it also means leaving out some fabulous other material from their accomplishments, the series ends up gripping us with the contents, including the scientific conversations and the experiments shown.

Abhay Pannu must easily rank as the finest new directorial talent we have seen in a long while. Trained also under the ace storyteller Neeraj Pandey (in the engrossing yet realistic Naam Shabana) and having worked on other good series as an assistant director, Pannu pans out his narrative as an amalgam of perfect storytelling for the medium as well as the biopic genre, aided by his splendid team of writers. Special marks also to Kavish Sinha for the casting—it is fabulous and now, Mukesh Chhabra’s got competition!.

High grades—no, make that distinction marks!—go to the Costume Design (Biju Antony & Uma Biju), Make-up department (Shoma Goswami), VFX (Futureworks et al) and, of course, the production design and art department (Meghna Gandhi & Pradeep Nigam). The editing (Maahir Zaveri), cinematography (Harshvir Oberai) and music (Achint Thakkar) are plain super—Achint also did outstanding work in Scam 1992.

As Bhabha, Jim Sarbh’s performance has only one word—stupendous!—to describe it. This is one amazing actor (Neerja, Padmaavat, Sanju and more) whose versatility is indeed spellbinding. Being a Parsi himself may have made the job a bit easier, but the actor makes us love Bhabha in every shade of his character—eccentric, amorous, naughty, determined, resigned, angry, puzzled, humorous and more.

Ishwak Singh is a perfect foil as the calm and cool Sarabhai who is almost never ruffled. His eyes speak volumes. Rajit Kapur as Pandit Nehru exudes a naturalness that stops him from being a caricature, though he sometimes slips from his role into what he actually is. Regina Cassandra is a tremendous pan-Indian find: this Tamil actress can really ace such well-written characters on screen and is an utter charmer. So, on a lesser scale thanks to a briefer, less nuanced character, is Neha Chauhan as Kamla.

Dibyendu Bhattacharya, who is fast rising as an ever-dependable character, come cop, god-man or rogue, excels as Raza. K.C. Shankar is correctly laconic and Saba Azad is good, better in some crucial scenes as the girl hopelessly in love with Bhabha. The actor playing Vikram’s father is excellent, and Arjun Radhakrishnan brings in the perfect mix of innocence and determination as the young Abdul Kalam. The other characters are competent.

But the series is much more. It fills a vacuum among biopics as it highlights two of our finest atomic scientists for whom their work was their life, to the extent that families came second without their becoming callous spouses, sons or fathers. And it was all for India and Indians.

Rating: ****1/2

Sony LIV presents Roy Kapur Films’ & Emmay Entertainments’ Rocket Boys Created by Nikkhil Advani Produced by: Siddharth Roy Kapur, Nikkhil Advani, Madhu Bhojwani & Monisha Advani  Directed by: Abhay Pannu Written by: Abhay Korrane, Abhay Pannu, Kausar Munir & Shiv Singh Music: Achint Thakkar Starring: Jim Sarbh, Ishwak Singh, Regina Cassandra, Dibyendu Bhattacharya, Rajit Kapur, Saba Azad, Arjun Radhakrishnan, K.C. Shankar, Namit Das, Neha Chauhan, Mark Bennington & others

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