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Nikkhil Advani on 'Rocket Boys': "We decided science is magic and we need to make it as visual as possible"

"The world knows of Homi Bhabha and Vikram Sarabhai primarily in one way, but only the family can tell you a different story or validate your story." - Regina Cassandra

January 30, 2022 / 08:34 PM IST
Jim Sarbh as Dr Homi J. Bhabha in SonyLIV's 'Rocket Boys'.

Jim Sarbh as Dr Homi J. Bhabha in SonyLIV's 'Rocket Boys'.

If Dr Homi J. Bhabha is deemed the architect of India’s nuclear energy programme, Dr Vikram Sarabhai is considered the father of India’s space programme. The two highly respected and self-motivated men joined forces to formulate India’s space programme. Not only did they share a love for physics and space, but they reportedly shared an interest in the finer things in life too.

The eight-part first season of Rocket Boys (SonyLiv, releasing February 4, 2022), directed by Abhay Pannu, explores this friendship, their personalities and the work of Sarabhai and Bhabha, played by Ishwak Singh and Jim Sarbh, respectively. The cast includes Regina Cassandra as Mrinalini Sarabhai, Saba Azad as Parvana Irani, Rajit Kapur as Jawaharlal Nehru and Arjun Radhakrishnan as A.P.J. Abdul Kalam.

Actors Cassandra and Sarbh and show creator Nikkhil Advani spoke about creating this biopic and the importance of that period of India’s history.


What was it about this story set in the 1940s and onwards, within India’s space programme, that made it a viable idea for a web series?


Vikram Sarabhai and Homi Bhabha were many things, and among them they were also friends, shared a student-mentor relationship, and had textured personal lives too. They were men of science. All this is true. But a story needs conflict and that presented itself in their differing approaches to the use of atomic energy as armament. One was Gandhian, the other was not. One felt India needed to defend its borders. The story idea that Siddharth Roy Kapur (producer) brought had all the ingredients.

There is also an important reason why the show is called ‘Rocket Boys’ and not ‘Men’. In 1942, neither Sarabhai nor Bhabha knew they were going to be great men.

We bombarded Ishwak and Jim with research and background and then told them to stop, because they are going to play boys – boys at the point of  inflexion, where they have lofty ambitions. The construct of Rocket Boys is a biopic about two men who are best friends, it is not just about science and space.

How do you make science/ physics entertaining?

That is one of the exciting parts as a creator. The references we have turned to are films such as A Beautiful Mind, Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything. The first thing we decided is that science is magic and we need to make it as visual as possible. Secondly, even if they are speaking a lot of tech jargon, the scenes need to have a lot of energy so that what they are saying doesn’t matter for a layperson.

Bhabha (died in 1966) and Sarabhai (died in 1971) had short lives. Is there scope for more than one season?

Yes, we have a total of 16 episodes. The first season is eight episodes. What Sarabhai was to Bhabha, Kalam became to Sarabhai. In a sense, the baton gets passed as the show proceeds. The second season has more rocket launches, more about Kalam, etc.

REGINA CASSANDRA (Mrinalini Sarabhai)

Mrinalini Sarabhai is such a celebrated Indian classical dancer. Did you have any background in Bharatanatyam?

Once my casting was finalised, the first thing I said was I need a teacher and I need to get the Bharatanatyam right. Everything else I could read up on, learn, understand and put together in my own way. Keeping the essence of Mrinalini Sarabhai alive required that the dance had to be on par because I didn't want to do any injustice to her art and practice. There are two to three performances in the show. I am so grateful to Mallika Sarabhai and her son Revanta and to my initial teacher Preeti who started teaching me online during the pandemic.

What role is there for a woman in a story about rocket boys?

A very crucial role, because the world knows of them primarily in one way but only the family can tell you a different story or validate your story. The women, be it Mrinalini or Pipsi, provide a proper solid ground for our boys. Mrinalini was a strong-willed woman who knew what she wanted and stood her ground. She was a force to reckon with and I think she brought these things to Vikram Sarabhai’s life.

This is only your second Hindi language project - what was it like and how was it working with Ishwak Singh, who plays your husband?

Both Jim and Ishwak are such experienced theatre artists. I knew I could learn a lot from them. Ishwak was constantly writing notes all over his script. And he was very guarded about those notes. He is like that geek in class. He is an extensive actor who takes the time to understand each and every emotion of all the characters.

This is my first proper stint in the Hindi industry (I only had a small role in Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga). With Rocket Boys, I was living, breathing, talking Hindi the whole time and being a part of Bollywood. The culture on set is very different compared to the south. The assistant directors are so friendly. A lot of people were on the same wavelength, which is very different from the south. It was very refreshing also because not everyone knows my previous work so I get treated very differently.

JIM SARBH (Dr Homi J. Bhabha)

Apparently you were the first name the team came up with for the part. Does your Parsi heritage give you some advantage in playing the character?

Well, if you look at Naseeruddin Shah in Pestonji, for example, there are actors out there who can do the part with an incredible level of detailing. Homi Bhabha was Cambridge-educated and probably didn't speak as much Hindi as he does in this show, but there are some things I know work – for instance, I know that world of the Parsi family, I understand the idea of having studied in another country, of having travelled extensively and having chosen India anyway. With those things taken care of, I can think about other things such as how to make the scene interesting and how to be truthful in his sadness that is not presentational but representational. However, this doesn’t mean someone else cannot play the role just as well, or better.

An important chapter in Indian history, what is the significance of 'Rocket Boys' today?

So many things. The biggest takeaway from his life for me was Bhabha’s quality of interest in things and an absolute lack of fear to put the time and work in to making things happen. From the design of the building to splitting of the atom or writing of a letter, he was interested with passion and intelligence.

Overall, I hope the show inspires people to not view science as a geeky, stodgy, stuffy subject. There seems to be a general distaste for geeks in the world and a bias against science, so I hope this show helps to break down that stereotype.

Here you have two privileged people who came from affluent families and also had support from Jawaharlal Nehru and J.R.D. Tata, but they didn’t squander this privilege. They used all of this formidable intelligence and resources to create things for a greater good.

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Udita Jhunjhunwala is an independent film critic, lifestyle writer, author and festival curator. She can be found on Twitter @UditaJ and Instagram @Udita_J
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