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Monday, May 23, 2022

‘Rocket Boys’ gets Vikram Sarabhai wrong

Amrita Shah writes: The show distorts history, giving India’s space pioneer a bad name

Written by Amrita Shah |
Updated: March 2, 2022 9:08:51 am
Ishwak Singh in a still from Rocket Boys.

Why would a dramatic series claiming to be an admiring account of an eminent character from recent history diminish his reputation with invented falsehoods? I am speaking of Rocket Boys, a web series currently streaming on Sony Liv. The series is about the founding of modern India’s technological programmes in nuclear energy and space through the lives of its founders. While the series has been publicised as the “true” story of “legendary” scientists Homi J Bhabha and Vikram Sarabhai, a disclaimer claims that it is “fictionalised”.

Film reviewers have hailed it as pioneering, and educative. But as the extent of “creative liberty” taken by the series comes to light (fictionalising the real-life scientist Meghnad Saha, falsifying events and dates, making absurd scientific claims), it seems incumbent for specialists to point out at least the more egregious distortions.

As the author of Vikram Sarabhai — A Life (Penguin, 2007), the only full-fledged biography of the space pioneer, I am less concerned with modifications and more with what I see as a pointed misrepresentation of Sarabhai’s character and significance as a whole.

In the series, Sarabhai who was married to the classical dancer, Mrinalini Swaminathan, is presented as a boorish male chauvinist who dissuades her from pursuing her dreams and leaves her languishing while he pursues his ambitions and starts an affair with a colleague.

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At the beginning of the series, there is a flash of another Vikram, a virtuous one, arguing with Homi Bhabha who wants to build or pretend to build a bomb. Vikram opposes his aggressive posturing, pointing out the horrors of nuclear war and the possibility of reprisal from global powers. The two men tussle, with Bhabha eventually asking Vikram to be “his conscience”.

This is the fictitious Vikram’s strongest moment, and a rare one. For much of the series, he is made to wander in an air of dreamy abstraction, indulging in well-meaning but ill-thought-out ventures. His attempt to modernise production processes in textile mills, for instance, sparks off a workers’ uprising, doused with the help of his industrialist father.

A young job applicant, the fictitious A P J Abdul Kalam, finds an abandoned model rocket in his office and reminds Vikram of how he has neglected his dream. Having been brought to focus, the distracted Vikram prepares to launch his first real rocket (the first sounding rocket launch at Thumba in Kerala in November 1963 marking the beginning of the Indian space programme). But last-minute problems crop up, the remote system to raise the launcher malfunctions. Vikram loses heart and wants to call off the launch. The masterful Bhabha steps in, infuses courage in the flailing Vikram and with eager Kalam, helps him save face. All is well. Vikram even does a surprising turnaround on his position on the bomb to Bhabha’s relief, without offering a reason.

How does the real-life Vikram compare with his screen self? In real life, Vikram wholeheartedly supported his wife’s career, taking over childcare when she travelled abroad frequently on dance tours, handling her stage lights and co-founding her dance institution, Darpana. In a BBC interview, he talked about his hope of enriching “the artistic and cultural life of north India” through training in south Indian dance. (In the series, a version of this enlightened sentiment surprisingly springs from Mrinalini’s lips).

Vikram also ran successful family companies, founded a host of institutions including the Ahmedabad Textile Industry’s Research Association, which, far from being a brash young man’s vanity project as suggested in the series, was a much-replicated model for developing indigenous industrial research. “When you grow up,” he told his friend and fellow scientist M G K Menon, “you don’t have to walk step by step like a toddler; you can leap, run… you have to start processes, not like a gambler but like a prophet infallibly accurate as to what the consequences will be.”

No problem of focus or discipline there — or of nerve. The portly Bhabha has been turned into the virile superhero in the series but in real-life Vikram fought the tough battles.

Taking charge of the Atomic Energy Commission after Bhabha’s death in 1966, his nuanced position, balancing multiple considerations including India’s food security and cost (wrongly seen as knee-jerk pacifism), ran counter to the jingoistic build-up in the AEC and in the country for an overt demonstration of India’s capability. His death may even have been hastened by the agonising fight he put up for his differing vision.

He had an extra-marital relationship with Kamla Chowdhry, with whom he conceived the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad. The relationship, a source of anguish to all concerned, was also unusually open and without concealment.

Initiating a sophisticated space programme in a poor country at a time when superpowers were launching chimpanzees and astronauts into space, Sarabhai steered the Indian programme firmly towards development, avoiding any temptation for “glamour” or of creating a “sham image nationally and internationally”. How does a person of his mettle become the waffling, morally compromised figure in Rocket Boys? How does a person with his self-awareness become the inept dreamer who must be ticked off or rescued by everybody — wife, daddy, best friend, and even a callow subordinate?

Is there something more to be read into the bizarre infantilisation of the founder of the country’s most successful technological programme? Or is it just a mindless idea of what constitutes a selling “story”? Whichever it is, such a rewriting of history to diminish one of the nation’s great scientist-innovators cannot be taken lightly.

This column first appeared in the print edition on March 2, 2022 under the title ‘Unreliable narrators’. Shah is a Mumbai/Bengaluru-based writer and the author of Vikram Sarabhai — A Life (Penguin, 2007)

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