2020 saw Indian viewers at home flock to their TVs to watch Scam 1992 on SonyLIV, and it changed the game for the OTT platform race. While Amazon Prime and Netflix were bringing constant new content, the quality of what SonyLIV brought was of high caliber especially with Scam 1992. SonyLIV has tried to replicate the magic that the web series created which still is ongoing even to this day (Achint Thakkar's theme has seeped into every viewer's head now), and now they might have found it once again.
With Rocket Boys, this limited web series is worthy of the 8-episode story format which not only helps flesh the decades' worth of storytelling and characters but also reignites the patriotic vibe done so caringly.
The plot chronicles the lives of Homi J Bhabha (played by Jim Sarbh) and Vikram Sarabhai (played by Ishwak Singh) set between the 1940s to late 1960s where war is a backdrop with the World War for the former and the Indo-China war for the latter. Their growing friendship, key achievements together, personal romances, and even big rifts due to their ego clashes form certain key events that have changed the country for the better.
Homi, who eventually was considered to be the father of atomic energy in India, is portrayed here as an effortlessly charming, daring man who doesn't mind throwing some offensive language casually, but it doesn't take away the man's ambition instead he's driven by it which eventually consumes his personal life. Vikram on the other hand is a gentle, quiet man who's as equally ambitious as Homi but unlike Homi's frankness and charm, Vikram is more whimsical and modest in his approach.
These differing personalities immediately let the story organically flourish so poignantly, you couldn't help but have a big smile whenever their conflict is resolved and come around as friends.
The story also lets us how India has seen changes during those periods; with the first sign of freedom, the first space program headed by Vikram Sarabhai, and the first nuclear weapon spearheaded by Homi. The latter of course isn't used to eradicate people but is used as a deterrent which could possibly shift the tides against India's favor during the Indo-China war.
This is where the story begins when Homi proposes the idea of an atomic bomb to an advisory committee, and we see our first major conflict between Homi and Vikram. But the point here is they both stand on if not see eye-to-eye on is that they want to Make-in-India rather than import from elsewhere.
The series covers all events which happened in India during those decades: The pre-Independence freedom struggle, Quit India movement, World War 2, Indo-China war, and also as aforementioned Homi's and Vikram's personal lives. Rather than highlight their achievements, the series opts for creative liberties to flesh out these great scientists as incredibly flawed human beings.
This may be the only thing that could be considered ambivalent as some of them like the romance arcs are beautifully handled; Regina Cassandra effortlessly plays Mrinalini Sarabhai with grace and confidence, and Saba Azad plays Parvana "Pipsy" Irani who is a fictitious character as a foil to Homi's obsession of achieving his goal.
While others like a disgruntled professor played by Dibyendu Bhattacharya, while performed brilliantly, the character's motivation to spite Homi due to their different upbringing and the latter being favored more by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru (played by Rajit Kapoor) feels a bit too obvious. Also, it's really tiring to see the Britishers here play racist buffoons who are so cartoonish in nature, their stereotypical arrogance is honestly quite a chore to watch.
But what makes this show elevate from good to great is the performances. The titular leads here are perfectly cast; Jim Sarbh is more than comfortable playing incredibly charming characters and Homi might be his career-defining performance. Ishwak Singh is equally brilliant as Vikram Sarabhai, whose gentle smile, quiet demeanor fills your heart even during scenes when he's moving away from his family due to his focus on his work, you feel for him instantly.
All other supporting casts are uniformly great as well and so is the writing. Written and directed by Abhay Pannu, this series invokes a bygone era of the 1940s-1960s and you really feel you've gone back to those times.
With exquisite production design, brilliant cinematography by Harshvir Oberoi, and witty dialogues by lyricist Kausar Munir and Pannu, the show keeps on rising altitude with each episode.
And of course, Achint Thakkar's work here is as effortlessly brilliant as he's done before with Scam 1992. The opening credits theme may not be as catchy as Scam 1992 but it invokes the journey of those men so beautifully with amazing retro designs used in the opening credits sequence. The romance arcs may not be beautifully aching only if the background score complements it well and Achint makes Mrinalini-Vikram's relationship so poignant and real, even downright magical.
While nowadays, nationalism in Indian cinemas/web series/TV shows is used for cheap pops, Rocket Boys uses it as a means for a hopeful future. The scene where Homi and Vikram replace the Union Jack flag with the Indian chakra flag gives you goosebumps, it's a rarity to see such a show handling patriotism so movingly.
It also gives us a bittersweet feeling of thankfulness and remorse, as some of their visions are met while others aren't due to the oppressive forces around us, this show helps us ease the pain and make us hopeful like those two mad scientists who helped defined a generation of young minds like APJ Abdul Kalam.