The year is 1962. China invaded India. In a friction meeting of the Indian Atomic Energy Commission, chairman and scientist Homi J. Bhabha persuades the group to build India’s first atomic bomb. “We can stop any other country from thinking of attacking us again,” Bhabha told the group with force.
Not everyone agrees. Bhabha’s longtime friend and fellow member of the Atomic Energy Commission, Vikram Sarabhai, left the meeting and resigned in protest. “How can you do that with a clear conscience?” He asks Bhabha.
These are the opening scenes to Rocket Boysa web series published on February 4, which tells the story of three scientific leaders in the origins of India’s nuclear and space programs – Homi J. Bhabha, Vikram Sarabhai and APJ Abdul Kalam. Rocket Boys shows similarities with parmana film that came out in 2018. Where parman investigates the preparations for and implications of India’s 1999 nuclear tests, Rocket Boys describes the circumstances in which India decided to take the path of nuclear energy. While Rocket Boys does it make an engaging drama, does it tell this story with the necessary diligence to scientific and historical facts? Unfortunately, the answer is a resounding no.
The web series received early positive reviews in the media. But scholars, well acquainted with the history of these programs, soon discovered glaring shortcomings in science and the problematic ways in which key figures are represented. The narrative conveniently plays with the dominant hypernationalist narratives prevalent in India and deepens the lines of fault in Indian society.
Distorting reality. In an article aptly titled “As a historian of the nuclear program, I can only laugh at the roaring Rocket Boys”, Political scientist Iti Abraham mentions a scene in which a fully clothed Bhabha jumps into a radioactive reactor in a swimming pool to repair faulty fuel rods. He must activate the reactor in time for Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s visit. The scene is designed to be tense and biting nails. But it’s just not reliable; no nuclear physicist would do such a thing.
Abraham is the author of The creation of the Indian atomic bomb: science, secret and the postcolonial state– also criticizes the sequences showing the beginning of the first rocket launch in India, scenes that present Indian scientists as careless and incompetent. “Bhabha and Sarabhai would be horrified to think that their pioneering vision and outstanding achievements were reduced decades later to the celebration of screwdrivers and last-minute ropes pulling launch platforms,” he wrote.
Journalist Gita Aramudan, who is closely associated with the Indian space program and personally knows several people depicted in Rocket Boys, writes that he is “horrified by the freedoms that have been carelessly taken. … [T]Science is completely engrossed in the need to make the two main rocket boys cool. The irony, Aravamudan adds, is that the actual history of India’s space program is so dramatic and intriguing that the fictional decorations adopted by Rocket Boys were unnecessary.
Insidious script. Aravamudan ironically writes that I watch Rocket Boys feels like a bad Bollywood movie in which iconic scientists have been turned into the worst scientists stereotypes.
To add more drama to the web series, Bhabha faces an opponent, Mehdi Raza, a fictional character apparently inspired by Indian astrophysicist Meghnad Saha. Still, portraying Raza is extremely problematic, stealing from Sakha’s great reputation and personality, only to distort him in incredible ways. Saha was one of the most exalted scholars in India at the time, in the same league as Bhabha. He built the first cyclotron in India – which Raza is shown to do in the series – and also set up the Kolkata Institute of Nuclear Physics.
Special attention, Rocket Boys distorts the origins of Sakha in an insidious way. Saha was Dalit, the most oppressed and discriminated social group in India, formerly known as untouchable and treated as rejected. Yet the creators of the web series borrowed from Sakha’s professional experience, using it to clarify a Muslim opponent by deliberately monetizing India’s dominant anti-Islamist currents. In further manipulation of the truth, the series shows Raza arranging with the CIA to undermine India’s nuclear program – when Sakha was a socialist inspired by Soviet planning and tried to replicate it in India.
Rocket Boys tries to take a look at the personal lives of Bhabha and Sarabhai by examining their relationships with their families and the women in their lives. But since two men are the main characters in the series, the women appear as largely romantic props instead of fully-fledged characters and fade only to suddenly reappear in a few scenes.
Good acting. There is a buy function in Rocket Boys-the superb play of Jim Sarbh and Ishwak Singh, who play Bhabha and Sarabhai respectively.
The disputes between Sarabhai and Bhabha as best friends and sparring partners are some of the most watched moments of Rocket Boys. The two scientists come to life as they discuss the future of independent India, scientific progress, their ambitions and their love life. Homi Bhabha is portrayed as a cheerful individualist and a miracle, and Sarabhai as his foil – quiet, sharp as a razor and not afraid to challenge his mentor Bhabha.
But above all, Rocket Boys praises the role of science in the rise of a poor and newly independent nation in the 1960s. “Science from the late colonial period was burdened with an unrealistic set of expectations. “It is beginning to look at how India will turn centuries behind,” Sankaran Krishna wrote in a 2009 edited volume. South Asian bomb cultures: the atomic community and the state in India and Pakistan. Indian elites have offered to achieve nuclear energy status in response to the dire state of the country’s overall economic development, he added.
The release of Rocket Boys earlier this year comes at a time when India’s growth, prosperity and progress are being seriously called into question. His nostalgic tone and fetishization of science – and the atomic bomb – coincide with the rhythms of the ultranationalist and jingoist media and political narratives that dominate India’s public discourse today. Unfortunately, this discourse and Rocket Boys the series simultaneously plays freely with facts and bends reality in potentially dangerous directions.