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Becoming the Rocket Boys

Jim Sarbh and Ishwak Singh on the challenges of playing Homi Bhabha and Vikram Sarabhai in the new series Rocket Boys

Jim Sarbh and (right) Ishwak Singh in ‘Rocket Boys’
Jim Sarbh and (right) Ishwak Singh in ‘Rocket Boys’

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As much as Dr. Homi J. Bhabha and Dr. Vikram Sarabhai were men of science, they were also passionate about arts and culture. Bhabha created the Atomic Energy Commission, promoted peaceful use of atomic energy and space research. Like his mentor, Sarabhai too was educated at Cambridge. If Bhabha is dubbed the father of the Indian nuclear programme, Sarabhai, the son of a Gujarati industrialist, is regarded as the father of India’s space programme.

A new two-season series called Rocket Boys (premiering on 4 February on SonyLiv) goes back in time to explore a friendship between two brilliant physicists who collaborated to design India’s space programme. Jim Sarbh plays Bhabha and Ishwak Singh takes on the role of Sarabhai. Directed by Abhay Pannu and created by Nikkhil Advani, the series also stars Dibyendu Bhattacharya, Saba Azad, Regina Cassandra and Rajit Kapoor.

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The show is as much about science and space as it is about the men who became giants in their respective fields. Speaking of inhabiting Bhabha, Sarbh said, “Given the ridiculous state of the resources available, Dr Homi Bhabha did sublime work. His ability to make his vision into a reality was remarkable.”

Both Sarbh (Neerja, Made in Heaven) and Singh (Aligarh, Paatal Lok) used the slow pace of production, affected by the pandemic, to deep dive into their respective characters, reading books and watching documentaries to get a basic understanding of that era, of those changing times in India’s history, demarcated by colonialism and independence, of physics, science and their cultural roots.

“The more you read about Bhabha, the more you see that he was a complete man. Apart from all that he gave to science, he was passionate about the arts, he played the violin and piano, painted, supported modern Indian art, wrote books on culture while simultaneously putting out papers on science, discovering particles and leading research on the atomic bomb. He also had a wicked sense of humour,” said Sarbh over a video call.

The discovery process was similar for Singh, who found an evocative resource in Amrita Shah’s biography of Sarabhai. “The first point was to know what he is about—what was it like to be an Amdavadi in those days, what was his family legacy like, what were his cultural roots? I read about that. For me it was a trail,” said Singh. The trail organically took him from Jainism to Mahatma Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore and Albert Einstein.

“I also read about the important aspects of his life such as ISRO and IIM. Since he was a Gandhian, I got to read Hind Swaraj and a bit of Rabindranath Tagore’s Nationalism. I geeked out Walter Lewin’s lectures on Youtube,” said Singh, adding, “Peripheral work is also integral because all of that gives you something to work with when you approach the text. Then I asked the question—what is keystone, the core thing about these men and the answer was that science was their religion.”

The story of India’s rocket men, starting with Bhabha and including APJ Abdul Kalam has been packaged into two seasons of eight episodes each. Sarbh described this role as “one of the harder jobs” of his career. “There is no way to squeeze the breadth and depth of these men’s lives into eight hours, or 16 hours,” he said. “All you can do is try to touch something of their spirit and their approach.”

Bhabha and Sarabhai’s friendship is a crucial layer to the story. Both men were born into privilege, educated in the west and passionate about science. Sarbh said this was one of his favourite aspects of the biopic. “Vikram Sarabhai presents an alternative narrative that confronts Bhabha’s ideologies. He is someone Homi can learn from, challenge and bounce off. It’s a lovely friendship.”

While there was no next of kin for Bhabha accessible, the Sarabhai family— Vikram’s daughter, son and grandson—were available as resources for the writers and Singh. Facts have been blended with imagination to recreate post-Independence India, when the country began asserting its place in the world, not least through science, space research and atomic energy.

Inhabiting the personas must have been a daunting task. Sarbh said his process was to think less about the person and more in terms of approach. “Here is a person who thinks fast, plans ahead, has a deep understanding of science, art, politics and human behaviour. How does this man approach the scene? The playing of him—it was more work in the learning of the scene and the workshops. What kind of man never gives a preamble? Who is this person who understands the dynamics of a room and powerplay within that room? How does a confident and intelligent man be vulnerable? At times he must have been lonely too.”

Singh’s entry into the part was similar, he says. “It never felt extraordinary because it came to me as a very human story. Nikkhil Advani told me you are playing Vikram Sarabhai, but you are also playing Vikram. That note really helped me. I never felt overwhelmed by this iconic character. The task was daunting, but the conflicts, contradictions and struggles are similar to what we all go through in our worlds.”

As we speak, Sarbh is leafing through a graphic novel about Bhabha. He begins to read the bibliography at the back of the book. “A Masterful Spirit: Homi J Bhabha, Architect of Nuclear India, and I particularly like this one, Bhabha and his Magnificent Obsessions. He was a genius and a creative spirit. You need to be extremely driven to overcome adversity and do what he did.”

The essence of Rocket Boys, said Singh, is “the spirit of these people in their time —in the Golden era, when these fathers of Indian science who were men of honour, who didn’t have too many resources, yet they achieved so much. There is art and symphony even in Maths—the way they talk about it or teach it. It’s not just objectives. It’s also creative. Bhabha and Sarabhai’s dream was to do something which would be lasting and benefit future generations.”

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