Rocket Boys review: Jim Sarbh soars with an exceptional cast, SonyLiv finally delivers a great successor to Scam 1992
Rocket Boys review: Jim Sarbh and Ishwak Singh headline SonyLiv’s brilliant and beautiful new series on the lives of pioneering Indian scientists Dr Homi J Bhabha and Dr Vikram Sarabhai.
Abhay Pannu’s Rocket Boys opens to perhaps its most well-crafted, earnestly performed and tightly-written scene. Jim Sarbh’s lean but powerful, suited-booted Homi J Bhabha is in a dark and gloomy room, full of India’s brightest scientists in 1962. These include Vikram Sarabhai, played by Ishwak Singh with the silky softness of his pristine kurta-pyjamas. The Chinese are advancing and India is at the cusp of war. Hard decisions must be made about a home-grown atomic bomb in a world where the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are still too fresh to be forgotten as stories for history textbooks. Vikram and Homi lock horns on the dangers of weaponisation against those of pacifism in the face of war. The debate flows organically and the urgency is reflected not just in Jim and Ishwak’s performances but also in equally competent—if not more so—supporting cast as well. The scene sets the theme, of ideas and moralities constantly at odds, and expectations for what is to come—eight episodes spanning over 25 years of the lives of these two pioneering scientists, who lived a life worth telling in an era that deserves far more attention than our films and television have allowed it.
However, all these eight episodes, though written and directed by first-time director Pannu himself, are not always pitch perfect. The first episode is euphoric, which begins our journey back in time through 1940 amid The Blitz, our rocket boys’ meet cute—another scene that inspires a chef’s kiss— to the Quit India Movement and an obnoxious gora sahab igniting a fire for freedom within both of them. The science classes and rockets take a backseat in the next couple of episodes as love and hormones take over, also bringing along some contrived complications that could get a bit hard to digest. But soon enough, Pannu realises where the focus should be—charting the journey of these men from being mad scientists in a backyard, welding together parts of a baby rocket, to setting up institutions, gaining a few enemies, making friends with ministers, taking on greedy maharajas and mistrusting mill workers. Pannu doesn’t give his episodes The Crown treatment—attempting to tell the story of one crisis at a time. He allows the crises the bandwidth they need, while milking as much drama as possible from each of them.
All through their journey, in what is essentially a double biopic series, Vikram and Homi never come across as god-like figures incapable of wrong doing, something not many biopic directors in Bollywood can claim to have achieved. They are still human, just packed with a lot of resilience and sometimes, equal amounts of cruelty. The brunt of the latter is often suffered by the women in their lives. Regina Cassandra is heartbreaking as Vikram Sarabhai's wife Mrinalini. During their courtship period, her feminist ideals seem nothing other than made-up issues to keep Vikram on his toes at all times. But later, when the charm of love at first sight wears off and the woke scientist wants her to bring up the kids and sit at home, you feel the shame that is rightly his to feel.
Saba Azad plays the initially effervescent and later tragic Pipsy, who loves Homi with all that she has but the same can't be said about him. Their chemistry doesn't affect much in you in the happier days but later, Azad and Sarbh leave you with a dent in your heart in moments where a lot is left unsaid.
Cassandra and Azad are just two of the many, who carry Rocket Boys beyond the pastures of ‘good’ to ‘great’. Dibyendu Bhattacharya is hard to hate as the jealous rival Raza Mehdi. He--seemingly--effortlessly conveys polite geniality, simmering rage, outright jealousy and when needed, even humble acceptance of defeat. Also delivering one of his best performances ever is Rajit Kapoor as Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. He moulds his voice, takes it a pitch higher and sticks with it when cheering with diplomats over drinks at garden parties or blasting his men for shoddy work. Special shoutouts also to Vijay Kashyap who exudes warmth and wisdom as Lal Bahadur Shastri and the genteel Karthik Shrinivasan as CV Raman. While I accept that Dr APJ Abdul Kalam wasn't always the forever-smiling President in that iconic hair and blue suit that I remember him to be, something did not still feel right about the tall Arjun Radhakrishnan and his impeccable Hindi.
Rocket Boys also earns many points for the unrelenting attention to detail and realising the need for creating the right atmosphere for your story. Light filters in through dusty rooms, always gentle, never blinding, tables are loaded with trinkets and tools, chalkboards have turned a dull white due to excessive use, the corridors are cool, the doors heavy and everything looks authentic. Even the perennial dusk. It's the stuff of Pinterest dreams. While I can appreciate a good royalty free Vivaldi or Erik Satie in the background, even when the scene may or may not ask for it, it is still quite cringey to hear cues of ‘tings’ and ‘tongs’ on comical scenes, however rare.
But at the end of the day, like on many occasions in the series itself, Jim Sarbh comes charging in to save everything. With multi-starrers or side roles, Bollywood has long tried to keep him hidden, but as the electric Homi, he delivers a performance that is sure to launch him to the stars. Sarbh has a way about him, that makes him seem a little more surprising than others, a little more uncertain but here, he proves that he is capable of carrying more emotionally heavier, muted scenes with tranquillity too. Ishwak Singh, after playing the UPSC aspirant in Paatal Lok, is still easily believable as the soft spoken, warmer Vikram Sarabhai. He is the right foil to Sarbh in more ways than one, bringing in the calm, even though Vikram's own life isn't any less chaotic.
It took SonyLiv 1.5 years to deliver a worthy successor to Hansal Mehta's Scam 1992. Rocket Boys is a shining star on the streamer's roster. Netflix better get started on a rocket of their own to pluck one from the heavens.
Director: Abhay Pannu
Cast: Jim Sarbh, Ishwak Singh