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The science of a hit series

He’s pulled it off not once but twice over, chronicling the lives and achievements of legendary scientists Vikram Sarabhai and Homi Bhabha. Abhay Pannu, 31, the director of Rocket Boys, talks to Nonika Singh about the making of the OTT series, the buzz Season Two is creating, and also a few voices of dissent

The science of a hit series

Ishwak Singh (L) as Vikram Sarabhai and Jim Sarbh as Homi Bhabha in Rocket Boys.



Millions of views and an IMDb rating of 8.9, is there anything else on your wishlist?

India’s population is 1.5 billion. The idea is to reach out to a billion viewers. The biggest victory for a filmmaker is to transcend all boundaries, be it religion, region, language or geography.

Abhay Pannu

What was uppermost on your mind when you decided to make a series on science?

It was a very conscious decision to make it as entertaining, as palatable, as engaging as possible and reach out far and wide so more and more people watch it. I think we succeeded in doing so. The other day, Javed Akhtar Sahab shared how he not only binge-watched the second season but it also whetted his appetite to understand what heavy water is, how the scientists make the bomb.

There is science, arts, emotions, politics and then it pans out like a thriller — how tough was it to meld all the elements?

I never felt it was going to be difficult. Once you have a cracking script in place and great collaborators, be it the technical crew or actors, everything falls in place.

Is it easier or tougher to make a series around people who are no more?

It’s easier for sure and more liberating too. I had the freedom to make Ishwak Singh and Jim Sarbh play Sarabhai and Bhabha the way I wanted to. There are not too many visual references on how they worked and how they behaved. Contrast this with a biopic on say Kapil Dev, whom you see every day on television and you know how he talks and walks. So, it’s limiting as also the fact that there will be no freshness and, perhaps, more harsh comparisons.

How challenging is it to marry fact with fiction?

I believe filmmaking is a very democratic process. But with democracy comes responsibility and the need for self-discipline. I can’t possibly show whatever I want to. But, if I managed to show Sarabhai and Bhabha as inspiring figures and ones who left behind a lasting legacy and made some minor deviations here and there, I think that should be allowed. I may have juggled a few timelines but I believe, ‘never let facts come in the way of a good story’.

What was your reaction when you first heard the concept which came from your namesake Abhay (Koranne) and creator Nikhil Advani, and producer Siddharth Roy Kapur decided to put it together?

I was excited and jumped at the idea. The need of the hour is to tell stories which have not been explored before and are about India and its history. People thought I was mad to do a series about scientists who spoke about cosmic rays and nuclear physics. But I knew from the onset that the show would resonate with people.

What was Advani’s and Kapur’s brief?

Sid always tells you to be honest, but since Nikhil is himself a director, he is more specific. He told me we are making ‘Rocket Boys’ and not ‘Rocket Men’. So don’t show them as Dr Homi Bhabha and Dr Vikram Sarabhai, as legends, one the father of India’s nuclear programme and the other of space research. Show them as Homi and Vikram, as imperfect, fallible characters, falling in and out of love as men making mistakes and faltering once in a while. That was some piece of advice.

Audiences love the show, critics not so much.

The second season is more enjoyable for those who are not cinephiles, who are not purists. I agree with some of the criticism, especially the handling of the antagonists, which could have been done better and not just as uni-dimensional characters. But those who feel there is more politics and history in the second season, my answer is, I always wanted Season One to be character-driven and Two to be plot-driven and to show the story of not just these two scientists, but also of how an independent nation was coming up around them.

You created Reza Mehdi’s character for you wanted to call out the class divide and Islamophobia. But many feel his character gets a short shrift.

He was always conceived as the face of people who do the right thing. But did he get justice? No. I take criticism very positively, maybe when I write another character like him I will bear it in mind. But here his arc was in sync with the way the story was meant to be told.

The local press in Kerala spoke of a conspiracy behind Sarabhai’s death too. Did you think of using it in the series?

Truth be told, we spoke to Mallika Sarabhai about it. She agreed that there was a little bit of noise about it, but it was not true. There is ample evidence around the conspiracy behind Bhabha’s death.

You had the Sarabhai family on board, but his biographer Amrita Shah has been rather acerbic.

For one, we had the official biographer, Padmanabh K Joshi, on board. Moreover, no one knows a person better than his family. We went ahead with Mallika and Kartikeya Sarabhai’s account of their father. Besides, whenever you make a biopic, there is bound to be a difference of opinion.

Viewers have their favourite moments from the series, which one is yours?

By a clear margin, it is the last scene which invariably brings tears to my eyes. It sums up my life’s philosophy that one must keep trying. It’s ok even if we fail and don’t achieve what we set out to. While writing the show, I have become a better version of myself.


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