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Deaths, drama, yet India has its date with destiny – Beyond Bollywood

Despite the grim realities, creator Nikkhil Advani, writer Abhay Pannu succeed in doling out a fairly gripping season two. Unheralded acrir Charu Shanker takes centerstage as Indira Gandhi, but Jim Sarbh, Ishwak Singh remain the heart and soul of this inspiring series.

Rating: 3.5 / 5

By Mayur Lookhar

In the dying moments of season 1, Homi Bhabha pens a letter to Vikram Sarabhai. The most defining words in the letter are, “It’s time for the old to make way for the new”.  Those familiar with history, are instantly gripped by a sense of sadness. We felt it would be fine if there is no season two. The Rockets Boys may not be around, but India still had a date with destiny. The ardent followers of the Sony Liv web series, too, were spiritually obligated to witness history sans Nehru and his two mad scientists.

The biggest challenge for Advani and Pannu was to engage the audience in the tragic scenes.  There’s plenty to mourn but hardly any time to grieve. The first big blow is the death of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru [Rajit Kapur] on 27 May, 1964. While the nation grieves, but there’s barely any tears in Teen Murthi Bhavan. The Congress Party, in particularly senior leader Morarji Desai is in a hurry to ‘democratically’ appoint the successor. Despite the personal loss, Indira Gandhi [Charu Shanker] finds herself in the midst of politics that presents the all-important conundrum – the baton is to be passed, but to whom?

Desai and his coterie put pressure on Indira when her father isn’t even cremated. She is hard pressed for private mourning as Desai and co. surround her. She seeks some private moment. Back outside, Homi Bhabha [Jim Sarbh] and Vikram Sarabhai [Ishwak Singh] once again have their difference of opinion over India’s nuclear bomb dream. The latter again derides the former for being selfish. Outside the family, Bhabha was the closest to Nehru, but even he doesn’t show much emotion at his funeral. He manages to get couple of minutes with Indira, where he reminds her of Nehru’s final words to him. Indira head backs to the conference room and is ready to give in when the then Congress president K. Kamaraj arrives. 

Sanity prevails then but two years later, that included the 1965 India-Pakistan war, India is mourning again. Déjà vu as Indira has to make a pivotal decision again. But this time Indira is politically suave as she defeats the eternal aspirant (Desai) democratically. No time is wasted on showcasing the election. There are bigger things to take care of as Indira gives the green signal to Homi to make the atomic bomb.  Not quite the same words like Nehru, but Indira doesn’t believe in wasting a second.

Inevitably, there is more mourning to follow in the years to come, but the clock is ticking for India to secure its boundaries. There’s the impending threat of expansionist neighbors, pressure of international and domestic politics, internal enemies, and the fear of the omnipresent Central Intelligence Agency. The many deaths should ideally call for sustained period of mourning, but the drama that ensues in the aftermath of every tragedy is perhaps akin to the power play in Game of Thrones. The HBO series though is pure fantasy. Rocket Boys has its share of drama, but this is about India’s national security. Deaths, drama, destiny. The three words encapsulate season 2 of Rocket Boys. The mourning is limited even in personal capacity where the kins each have their duties to their children.

The events put focus on Indira Gandhi where Charu Shanker comes into her own, giving a portrayal like never before.  After the early setbacks, Shanker’s Indira evolves into a strong, non-nonsense leader who wouldn’t compromise on India’s national security. There is little show of emotion as Shanker chips in with a commanding show. 

Well, that is not to say that Jim Sarbh and Ishwak Singh were underwhelming. It’s just that Homi Bhabha and Vikram Sarabhai had mellowed down with age. They have their respective personal and professional stresses, it’s Sarbh, though, who has a wear and tear look. After all, the atomic bomb dream had bigger hurdles.  Maybe Nehru’s death has made Sarbh more acceptable of the political bureaucracy. That desperation in season one gives way to a more patient Homi Bhabha. Being exposed to radiation for few minutes during a suspected assassination attempt in his facility does takes it toll too. As a viewer, you miss the aggression of Homi from season 1, but you admire this mellow, slightly emotional display by Jim Sarbh more.  For all that genius, he was after all a patriot, a son, a true friend. You may not often understand his ‘convoluted’ sentences, but even he is amused by it. Sarbh delivers another virtuoso performance further adding to his growing reputation.

Sarabhai is more focused on India’s satellite dream. That perhaps came with its adequate screen time, but it’s not underwhelming. The India satellite dream being dependent on NASA [National Aeronautics and Space Administration] helps to balance the anti-Americanism in this Indian web series.  Sarabhai eventually comes around and paves the way for India’s atomic dram. (The present-day ultra-nationalists would put this balance of equation as another sign of India’s robust, independent foreign policy).  More than science, season 2 sees Sarabhai make amends on the personal front.  You wish for a little grey hair, but Ishwak Singh never loses that Sarabhai grace and humility.  

The personal stories may divide opinion. Does it drag Rocket Boys season 2?  We leave that to individual opinion.

It’s well documented how Mallika Sarabhai was comfortable in sharing an uncomfortable aspect to her late parents. The feminists needn’t fear as there is no brushing aside the carpet.  Pannu and Advani’s Mrinalini [ Regina Cassandra] uses her art form to address matters of the heart. Vikram’s legacy is for the nation. Mallika has carried forward her mother’s legacy.  Though art, there is another passing the baton here. Poor Pipsy [Saba Azad] has to endure double blows. The Parsi lady though stays strong for her children. Both Azad and Cassandra make the most of their opportunities.

Season 1 had copped certain criticism over the character of Reza [Dibyendu Bhattacharya] who is perhaps loosely inspired by the unsung astrophysicist Meghnad Saha. The latter didn’t always see eye-to-eye with Homi Bhabha and we saw the one-upmanship between Reza and Nikhil’s Advani’s Bhabha in Rocket Boys earlier. Some even suggested that Rocket Boys [2022] took away Saha’s identity.  Though the Reza narrative is pure fiction, but it enables Abhay Pannu and Nikkhil Advani to build the internal conflict.  Reza sensed the real threat in the fag end of season 1.  The burying-the-hatchet followed in season 2, but the duo is further divided leaving Reza to live the life of a pariah. Reza’s desperate pleases fall on deaf ears. Nevertheless, he speaks the truth, and in the process, Advani also pays fitting tribute to Meghnad Saha.

Rocket Boys is a shining example of a science, thriller where there is no needless political bashing. It is in contrast to certain cinema that’s mushroomed in the recent years. No political families, no sentiments are hurt. Ah, maybe descendants of one might have a thing or two to say. Nothing is personal though here.

In a season where the American threat is bold, Mark Bennington regales as the intimidating top CIA agent Robert Crowley. Most second seasons of Indian web series are tough to pull off. The big dream takes off, but Rocket Boys season 2 doesn’t quite achieve the creative highs of the inaugural season.  The principal protagonists [Dr. Homi Bhabha, Vikram Sarabhai] are immortalized, but the hands that weaved magic on 18 May, 1974 are given their due. Long live Dr. Raja Ramanna, Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam and co.  Oh Rocky Boys, the nation, the ‘Buddha’ owes its ‘smile’ to you.

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