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Why Rocket Boys didn’t need to take so many creative liberties

A journalist, who was married to one of the original 'rocket boys', says the real ISRO story, full of feats and failures, doesn't need embellishment

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

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After the first two episodes of Rocket Boys, I began to feel I was watching a Bollywood movie, complete with a Karan Johar-style shaadi where, after physicist Vikram Sarabhai marries classical dancer Mrinalini Sarabhai in traditional South Indian ceremony, the bride, groom and their friends waltz and dance to jazz tunes inside the mantap. In 1943! 

There were disclaimers before every episode saying Rocket Boys was a dramatized biopic about two famous scientists, Sarabhai and Homi Bhabha, the nuclear physicist. So, I was expecting some masala, but by the end of the series, I was appalled when I saw the amount of creative licence they had taken. 

Some of our most iconic scientists had been turned into Bollywood stereotypes and Nobel Laureate Sir C.V. Raman into a spineless prop. A Dalit Muslim villain building a cyclotrone and taking money from Jinnah had been fabricated. In his column for Business Standard, Shekhar Gupta calls this “identity theft” because the man who actually built India's first cyclotrone in 1950 was an internationally renowned physicist named Meghnad Saha. 

Also read: Becoming the Rocket Boys

Here’s my disclaimer: I have been closely associated with the Indian space fraternity as my husband R. Aravamudan, who passed away recently, was an ISRO pioneer and one of Dr. Sarabhai’s first recruits. Over the past 51 years, I have had a ringside view of the spectacular growth of ISRO. I helped my husband author his bestselling memoir, ISRO: A Personal History. I have known many of the dramatis personae in this series and am appalled at the liberties that have been blithely taken. Maybe they should have given them fictional names as well and done away with the pretence.

The original Rocket Boys at the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station in Thiruvananthapuram in the 1960s. 
The original Rocket Boys at the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station in Thiruvananthapuram in the 1960s.  (From Gita Aravamudan's collection)

Abdul Kalam and Aravamudan (or Dan as he was popularly known) were not just colleagues but good friends. And they remained good friends through their lives. As young men, they were recruited in 1962 to join the newly formed space research team and sent to NASA together to learn about rockets. Kalam was not recruited in 1954 as the show indicates. The story of how Kalam joined ISRO is also untrue; in fact, everything about the two episodes on Kalam are entirely false. Which is a shame because everything about him—from his simple origins in Rameswaram (obviously the creators thought all of Tamil Nadu is just Chennai) to his inability to speak Hindi to his life in ISRO as one of Sarabhai’s young scientists who lived in a lodge in Trivandrum—is done away with. What we have on screen is a fake Kalam manufactured to suit this story.

The creators have spoken in detail about the research they’ve done—which is why I had hope for this show—but the science has been subsumed completely by the need to make the two main rocket boys cool. Bhabha uses the f-word freely and carries his whiskey glass with him everywhere, including to the reactor room, because that—and not his achievements—is what makes him a maverick. Sarabhai is a pale and serious man with none of the charisma which attracted so many people to him in real life, and convinced them to follow his vision to create a space programme in a newly independent India. These, unfortunately, will be the images that stay with the ordinary viewer, and not the audacity with which those early scientists envisioned India’s place in the world and the hard work that went into making that a reality. They built institutions and more importantly, they were well-qualified, internationally recognised scientists, who knew what had to be done and how.

R. Aravamudan, known as Dan, and Abdul Kalam (right) in Thiruvananthapuram in the 1960s
R. Aravamudan, known as Dan, and Abdul Kalam (right) in Thiruvananthapuram in the 1960s (From Gita Aravamudan's collection)

The former Travancore royal family is also up in arms for the portrayal of former ruler Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma. In a totally fabricated meeting, Bhabha is shown abusing and threatening the late ruler for refusing to sell valuable minerals he needs for his reactor. The former ruler, whom I knew as a mild and dignified gentleman, was not even in Delhi in 1947 when this alleged meeting took place.

Also read: How women are guiding change in Munsiari

Even the picturization of the first launch from Thumba with Bhabha and Sarabhai counting 1-2-3 and hefting the Nike Apache rocket into position is false. The creators repurposed a real-life incident when some young engineers lifted a small rocket and put it on the launcher after the hoist failed. Neither of the two great men were involved. Nor was Kalam.

The true story of ISRO is in itself so dramatic and full of real-life feats and failures that it doesn’t need any of these fictional embellishments. Sarabhai was a charismatic leader whose ‘boys’ were completely devoted to him. Every one of his visits to Trivandrum was special. He brought energy and excitement with him. He knew everyone by name. He guided them and knew exactly what each one was doing. These were the boys who followed Sarabhai’s vision and built rockets from scratch. They were his ISRO family. The ones who bitterly mourned him when he died in 1971, and who took his nascent dream far into the skies and beyond after his death. Many books have been written about ISRO’s amazing journey and the key role played by Sarabhai. The creators only had to refer to them to get the basic facts right. But maybe they didn’t want this because masala sells, and dead icons cannot protest or snatch back their identities.

Mission Mangal, released a couple of years ago, was also a fictionalized depiction of the women scientists of ISRO. It was equally annoying, and I wrote then, “Mission Mangal is definitely not a science movie, nor is it well-researched narrative science non-fiction. In fact, at times, it almost looks like light-hearted comedy. Take for example the scene where Vidya Balan rolls a gas stove into a room where a serious technical meeting is taking place and starts frying puris to demonstrate how fuel can be conserved. Or when Akshay Kumar talks to Kalam on a pretend-phone. Unimaginable in the real world.”

Like Rocket Boys, Mission Mangal raked in the money. Who cares about boring facts, hard work and effort? Rocket Boys is about men, so it spends a lot of time on political interference, CIA spies and the romance of the two major players. Science takes a back seat. Mission Mangal, on the other hand, is about women, so the focus is on domestic issues and women bonding to solve complicated technical challenges using “scientific” jugaad, inspired by their everyday experiences. It’s rocket science made easy. The R&D, the engineering and the detailed technical work that goes into it is hardly shown.

R. Aravamudan, Abdul Kalam and the author, Gita Aravamudan, at Rashtrapati Bhavan in the 2000s.
R. Aravamudan, Abdul Kalam and the author, Gita Aravamudan, at Rashtrapati Bhavan in the 2000s. (From Gita Aravamudan's collection)

The real work of research and development, the engineering and the detailed technical work that goes into a space programme is never touched up on when Bollywood decides to turn its camera on rockets, whether it’s a show like Rocket Boys or a blockbuster like Mission Mangal. Easy gender and religious stereotyping, insular views, quick-gun action and lines, and crude politics make for better movies than what actually happened.

Jugaad is the magic word here. In a scene in Rocket Boys, during a critical moment of the first launch, Sarabhai orders Kalam to “go and do your jugaad.” If only rockets could be made and launched with jugaad.

And one last question: In 1963 did the word jugaad even exist in the Rocket Boys' vocabulary? Certainly not in that of the rocket scientists who were on the launch pad that day.

Gita Aravamudan is a Bengaluru-based journalist and the author of Disappearing Daughters: The Tragedy of Female Foeticide, among other books.

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