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A Biopic with a Difference

Rocket Boys is a biopic that narrates the story of Homi Bhabha and Vikram Sarabhai, the architects of the Atomic Energy and Space pograms of India. Vani Jaipal reviews this 8-part web series that rivets with its interesting narrative, sepia tinted frames and the flawless performances of the lead actors. 

Of late, the world of cinema has been inundated with biopics.  There are biopics on gangsters, authors, film makers, explorers, sports stars and God knows who else. Indian cinema seems to have a particular affiliation to biopics on sportsmen and women. The biopic on MS Dhoni, the Indian cricketer, was gleefully embraced by a cricket crazy nation. A biopic on wrestlers, Pogat sisters (Dangal), an Indian boxer (Mary Kom) and a track and field sprinter (Bhaag Milkha Bhaag) were not only critically acclaimed but gained immense popularity. But biopics on scientists are few and far between. Some like ‘The Imitation Game’ on cryptographer Alan Turing, ‘The Theory of Everything’ on Stephen Hawking and ‘The Man who knew Infinity’ on Srinivas Ramanujan were of course made but were niche films that did not get widespread acceptance. Also, none of these films were of an Indian origin. So, when Sony Liv started advertising Rocket Boys, an 8-part web series on Homi Bhabha and Vikram Sarabhai, the fathers of the Indian Atomic energy and Space programs, I was excited and waited eagerly for the release. But to be very honest, I expected the series to be in documentary mode. I also, did not expect the series to have a very high interest quotient. Because, honestly, you don’t expect the lives of two erudite scientists to be anything but mature, unruffled, uneventful and somewhat boring, do you?

I have no hesitation in admitting that I was wrong on all counts. When the series started streaming, I binge watched it. Not because I did not have anything better to do but because I was rivetted by the story, the sepia tinted frames and the brilliant acting of the lead actors. Jim Sarbh who enacted the role of the brilliant, but mercurial Homi Bhabha and Ishwak Singh who gave an impressive and measured performance as Vikram Sarabhai, were flawless. Director, Abhay Pannu presented Bhabha and Sarabhai, ‘not as unapproachable icons from a bygone era but as relatable characters who dream, fail and try again just like any other normal person.’ There is absolutely no cinematic compromise in the display of qualities of scientific inquiry, genius and dedication to scientific development and national building displayed by these scientists. But at the same time their eccentricities, their human flaws and yes, their romance is also delineated for all to see. The movie is set in the period when India attained freedom and struggled to be acknowledged as a separate and stable nation. It begins with a few frames of Vikram Sarabhai’s student days at Cambridge and H. Bhabha’s (also a product of Cambridge) time in a college in Kolkata. The World War forces Vikram Sarabhai to come back to India and the inability of people around him to acknowledge his creativity and genius forces Homi Bhabha to quit his assignment as professor in the college. They both meet at the Indian Institute of Science headed by CV Raman and bond on account of their common love for science and making their nation a superpower. The deep bond between the two scientists warms the viewers but their differences are also real. The spat between them over building an atomic bond looks natural and real. Kausar Munir’s dialogues, acerbic and a little scoffing for Bhabha and soft with overtones of chaste Hindi for Sarabhai, breathe life into these characters, making them very likeable. Saba Azad as Parvana, Bhabha’s love interest and Cassandra as Mrinalini, Vikram’s better half, add a bit of romance and drama which makes the web series even more interesting.

Abhay Pannu says that he wanted to ‘tell a story about scientific development and national building in the country, but it was a conscious decision to tell the story through an emotional lens.’ It is probably this emotional lens that makes the web series special. It is this emotional lens that makes the series more than just a documentation of the contribution of two great scientists. Instead of becoming a boring and reverent tribute to these scientists, the film becomes a dramatic and exciting sojourn with two great scientists. This period film also connects with the present when it introduces Abul Kalam as one of the characters of this drama. A must watch. Especially for those of us who are tired of watching web series with narratives awash in blood and gore.  

~Vani Jaipal