One is revered as the “Father of the Indian nuclear programme”. The other is known as the one who initiated space research and helped develop nuclear power in India. The extraordinary lives and achievements of Dr Homi Bhabha and Vikram Sarabhai come to life in Rocket Boys. The eight-episode series, directed by Abhay Pannu, stars Jim Sarbh as Homi Bhabha and Ishwak Singh as Vikram Sarabhai, with Regina Cassandra playing the part of Mrinalini Sarabhai. The show’s powerful and pulsating trailer has garnered 20 million views in just four days.
With Rocket Boys set to stream on SonyLIV from February 4, t2 caught up with Jim Sarbh — known for his eclectic turns in films like Padmaavat, Taish and A Death in the Gunj — on what went into playing Homi Bhabha.
Rocket Boys has a fantastic trailer that’s attracted a large number of eyeballs. And that’s kind of half the battle won, isn’t it?
Oh, people are very excited about the trailer and they can’t wait to watch the show. The audience is excited about the fact that the show represents the lives of those men who we would probably not think of as heroic.... When we think of biopics, they normally tend to focus on sports figures or military figures or political figures.... So most people are excited that someone is finally telling a story of two people who were genius scientific minds at a time when our country was very, very new... very young. It had just been born.
These two men (Homi Bhabha and Vikram Sarabhai) created a path to shepherd India towards the first stages of scientific development. They were really extraordinary men in so many different ways. Apart from his contributions to science, Homi Bhabha was a brilliant painter, a musician and he wrote books on culture and was a huge patron of the burgeoning Indian art scene... he was truly, truly a Renaissance man.
Homi Bhabha was a multifaceted man. What aspects of him leapt out at you the most when you were offered the part?
He was such a great historical figure. Interesting and sophisticated, gentlemanly and irreverent, funny and his interest in so many different things was so striking. Very diverse and layered and hence a great character to play.
What was your understanding of Homi Bhabha before you were approached for this part and how did that change after Rocket Boys?
I knew of him peripherally and now I know him in a much deeper manner. In a year or two, if you quiz me about his scientific discoveries, I may not be able to recall much, but what this experience has left me with is his approach to life, the fact that he was unafraid of hard work, unafraid of perseverance.... He had tremendous tenacity in the face of monumental challenges. He wanted to make India a nuclear superpower when nothing was even made in India. He had a certain boldness and a relentless energy and drive to convert his vision into reality... and he did it! There was a stamp of predestination on him. Like Mozart, who was a genius at age six. He could play everything! The minds of these geniuses are different. They just have a different approach to life. He was a scientist, engineer, builder, administrator, a patron of the arts and music.... What an honour and a privilege for me to try to even step into his shoes.
How much did you have to go beyond the script in order to play him?
We workshopped a lot. I trusted that the script had done its research on the history and the science. And if there was anything I felt that didn’t match with what I had read or heard before, we would discuss it. Look at the history of Homi Bhabha... he went abroad, he met (Nobel Prize-winning Danish scientist) Niels Bohr, he met (US President) Eisenhower.... These are all known facts. The harder thing for me to crack was the approach. Anyone can go and meet people... what their approach is what matters, what is the difference between how he meets someone he reveres versus someone he does not.
Abhay Pannu has poured in a huge amount of love and work into this story. He’s a great collaborator, he’s going to go places. With him, it was more than just working the scenes, you know. He worked on nuances like... will this person say it or will he leave this thing unsaid?
This is an information-heavy show. And how we arrive at this information in an organic way. At the end of the day, seeing a human being who does great things is more interesting than seeing a cut-out, one-dimensional “correct” person.... So we kept reading the scenes, reijigging them, going back and reading them after four days, wondering: ‘What if they did this? What if they said that?’
I was always full of questions because I kept wondering how Homi would deliver a particular line. In the beginning, to be honest, I found him a bit expositional. I was always keen to rehearse Homi’s lines and that I would do a lot of with Abhay, because he needed to be around in case we needed to change or tweak something.
Jim Sarbh as Dr Homi Bhabha in Rocket Boys, streaming on SonyLIV from February 4
A lot of your scenes are with Ishwak Singh. What was the dynamic between you two and as an actor, is it necessary for you to bond with a co-star off set to aid the kind of chemistry needed in front of the camera?
I don’t think so. That should be optional. If you get along off set, that’s great, if you don’t, that’s also fine. But we did get along! (Laughs) We spent ages together.
The show hinges on the chemistry between the two (Bhabha and Sarabhai). They are two people with two different ideologies... one believes in protest, one doesn’t. But they are just two guys in a library... they don’t know the implications of these ideologies against each other, yet. They are just two friends arguing with each other. That was the fun bit of it.
As actors, Ishwak and I are opposites. And it was good to have a co-actor in the room who has a different style of acting because we could bounce off each other. There are a lot of wonderful actors on this show... Saba (Azad), Dibyendu (Bhattacharya), K.C. Shankar, Rajit Kapur... I had a lot of scenes with them as well. But yes, the essential chemistry between me and Ishwak is important and I hope it comes out as we intended it to.
There is a moment in the trailer where your Homi Bhabha tells Saba Azad’s Parvana Irani that she has the “Parsi-est name” you have ever heard. How much of your inherent Parsi-ness did you have to tap into to play Homi Bhabha?
Actually, if you look at it, Homi Bhabha was a well-travelled man of the world. And a lot of who I am aided in playing this character. Yes, the Parsi aspects helped, but also the fact that I have lived abroad, that I have travelled so much.... My dad was a captain on a ship and as a consequence, I have travelled all over the world with him. I think all of these things do play a part when you play a character. Homi Bhabha was a man fiercely devoted to the future of this country, but he had the ability to travel around. To do what he did, one needed to have international connections... he needed to be aware of international politics to make a nuclear reactor.
You come across as someone whose career isn’t the be-all and end-all of your existence. Acting is your passion, but perhaps going after a role or networking or being seen at the ‘right’ places isn’t.... Would that be a fair assumption to make?
I am obsessed with being an actor, I am not obsessed about being a celebrity. What drives me is that I get to play people I am not. As Jim Sarbh, I am not a genius like Homi Bhabha was, I am also not a manipulative slave general (like his Malik Kafur in Padmaavat) or a hijacker (in Neerja), I am not a man who has come out of a 20-year coma (in the web series Flip). It’s wonderful to live so many lives within one life.