Review of a review: ‘Rocket Boys’ (2022)

Tanul Thakur has reviewed a series on SonyLIV called Rocket Boys for The Wire. I haven’t watched the show and don’t plan to, for want of time as well as because, reading Thakur’s review, I think I know enough about how the series depicts the work of Vikram Sarabhai and Homi Jehangir Bhabha vis-à-vis transforming India into a “scientific superpower” (Thakur’s words).

This said, I found some of the statements in Thakur’s review worth additional comments in their own right. For example, Thakur, and presumably Rocket Boys itself, says this duo’s goal was “scientific superpower” status, but this is not true. Neither man was interested in science and the goal of their work was never scientific. They pursued the use of technology for India’s betterment, in line with Nehru’s vision, but neither man aspired to technological superpower status per se either; more importantly, conflating their work with scientific work is detrimental to the public perception of science, especially what the people at large believe constitutes progress towards becoming a scientific superpower. Launching rockets and building nuclear reactors will never get us there – only the non-glamorous work of better funding and administering research and not expecting immediate results can. This distinction, rarefied though it may seem, leads to the second part of Thakur’s review that I’d like to address:

Even though the biopic has exploded as a sub-genre in Hindi cinema over the last decade, profiling a vast range of sportsmen, leaders, even gangsters, it has paid scant attention to Indian scientists. Such depictions are so rare that I remember watching something similar almost eight years ago (a National Award-winning documentary, The Quantum Indians, chronicling the lives of Raman, S.N. Bose and Meghnad Saha). So, Rocket Boys, centred on the personal and professional lives of Bhabha and Sarabhai, is a fresh and long-due departure.

The Quantum Indians, made by Raja Choudhury and released in 2013, had the ridiculous blurb that it concerned the work of three “forgotten” Indian scientists – whereas its subjects were the three most well-known Indian physicists: C.V. Raman, Satyendra Nath Bose and Meghnad Saha. The way we have forgotten these men is often at odds with the way we tend to remember them, which is true with Rocket Boys as well. In 2014, Thakur quoted Choudhury as saying: “In 2012, when the [Higgs] Boson particle was announced, there was no conversation on S.N. Bose in international media at all. That riled me a little.” The reason few invoked Bose in that context was because his work had nothing to do with the Higgs boson!

Now, Thakur’s axis with Rocket Boys is that the biopic genre in India has once again finally visited Indian scientists. But to repeat myself, it hasn’t: Sarabhai’s and Bhabha’s contributions weren’t as scientists but as technologists – but to be more accurate, they are best remembered as fine administrators. Both the Department of Atomic Energy and the institution that became ISRO shortly before Sarabhai’s death were the product of Bhabha’s and Sarabhai’s ability to properly define the problems they needed to solve, build good institutions, staff them with the right people, lead them with integrity and, of course, work with the political establishment to have them funded and supported.

Casting Sarabhai and Bhabha as scientists is to mischaracterise, and ultimately gloss over, the precise nature of their achievements; by extension, to recall them as scientists or their work as scientific at this point of time is to continue to believe technological progress will lead to scientific success. (It’s entirely possible that Rocket Boys paid attention to their work as administrators but, given the givens, I don’t have my hopes up.) And in my view this conflation negates this axis of the review: the Indian biopic genre, at least in Hindi, has yet to concern itself with Indian scientists.

Instead, I’d say (again, without having watched it) that Rocket Boys is of a piece with the heightened valorisation of the Indian spaceflight and nuclear power enterprises since Narendra Modi became India’s prime minister in 2014. Modi has clearly celebrated India’s prowess on these fronts; he has also frequently sought to appropriate spaceflight achievements in particular to make himself and his party look more powerful, smarter, more decisive. In ISRO’s track record, Modi seems to have unfettered access to a slew of accomplishments that he has sought to attach to his own legacy.

As I wrote in my review of Mission Mangal (2019), the film “wouldn’t have been made if not for the nationalism surrounding it – the nationalism bestowed of late upon the Indian space programme by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the profitability bestowed upon nationalism by the business-politics nexus” that his government has fostered. Since 2016, I have also noticed (anecdotally) an uptick in the number of books and articles about the ‘golden’ years of the Indian space programme (which could have been a direct fallout of the prime minister’s view, which influences industry and culture). In the same period, and in a more thoroughly documented trend, ISRO has become more opaque, more petty and averse to failure in a way reminiscent of the Modi government itself. In 2019, ISRO also introduced a Vikram Sarabhai Award with a cash prize of Rs 5 lakh for articles that cast ISRO in positive light.

Taken together, it might be more useful to understand Rocket Boys as yet another manifestation of the “hamara ISRO mahaan” sentiment, especially since Thakur also writes that the series ultimately descends into a hagiography of Sarabhai and Bhabha (and Abdul Kalam) – than to consider it as a subject of the more-storied biopic genre.

Featured image: A still from ‘Rocket Boys’ (2022). Source: SonyLIV.