Close to two years ago, his quiet but impactful act as the honest cop Imran Ansari in Paatal Lok made everyone sit up and take notice. Now, Ishwak Singh is raking in the praise for his poised and pitch-perfect turn as Vikram Sarabhai — the pioneer of India’s space research programme — in Rocket Boys, streaming on SonyLIV. A candid chat with Ishwak on being Sarabhai on screen and why acting is his life.
The response to Rocket Boys has been unanimously positive. How would you look back at the experience of working on the show?
Over the last one year, we have worked extremely hard on Rocket Boys and have been very dedicated to our job in the middle of the pandemic, which hasn’t been an easy time for anyone. The entire crew has worked very closely... it almost felt like a family. It also reminded me of my college days.
We all worked as a unit and what you see is a result of that. It’s an honest, sincere effort where everyone has given it their all. We worked on so many different locations, but we never got tired. We were, of course, disappointed by the way we had to start and stop shooting in these difficult times. It’s not like how we are used to working. But these are the times we are living in and we did the best we could.
What was your understanding of Vikram Sarabhai before you were offered the part?
I was aware of Dr Sarabhai, but I didn’t know the nitty-gritties of his life... how he was a person and what he stood for. But knowing about someone and playing him are two very different things. As an actor, you have to dive deep into the character that you play and kind of find the person within you, and try and draw parallels. I had to know what he was like, and then go on to discover what the Vikram in me is like.
I made an honest effort. There was a lot of material on him to absorb. I read a beautiful biography on his life written by Amrita Shah. It’s very well written, and quite detailed, specific and anecdotal. And then, of course, was the script that I was a fan of right from the auditions.
It’s a very human story and talks about different aspects of the Sarabhai family. Vikram Sarabhai was someone whose work touched so many lives. He created so much, and has left behind such a rich legacy. I tried to be as authentic as I could, I tried to do justice to an iconic figure like him. I read about his growing-up years, his ideologies... he was Gandhian and he also used to read (Rabindranath) Tagore. He was a man of science. It was very interesting that these men (Vikram Sarabhai and Homi Bhabha, played by Jim Sarbh in Rocket Boys) were living in a time when they wanted to pull off something new and rebellious in science. In that sense, I feel very close to Vikram Sarabhai because I am constantly looking to change things in my craft and work. So ya, it was an amazing trip knowing him and playing him has inspired me so much.
As a person, is he like you in any way?
Well, I am an actor who always looks for myself in the people that I play. In fact, I have four people in my family at home and I also look for their traits in my characters. You don’t have to go far if you really want to know what Vikram Sarabhai was like. He was in a different time and in a different place, but we are all Indians and we all have similar aspirations and a certain way of life. At the end of the day, we are telling a human story.
I am a keen reader, and I was also a science student, and this gave me the opportunity to go back to some of my old physics books. I watched a lot of his lectures on YouTube. He was as passionate about science as I am about acting.
I actually realised I could have been a physicist... I quite liked it! (Laughs)
Vikram Sarabhai with then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi
Homi Bhabha, played by Jim Sarbh, is the more showy part, while Vikram Sarabhai is restrained. What was that like, playing off opposite energies?
Well, I went by what the script had, it was my Bible. When a script is well written, you see visuals, you sometimes even hear a voice... you start ‘hearing’ what a character is like, and that’s what happened to me with Vikram Sarabhai. As I said, there was a lot of reading material, but I also had to keep it spontaneous. There is no fun in keeping things planned. On set, one needs to experiment and see what works for you... it’s not a formula-based thing.
Playing him gave me a sense of what it must have been like working with the best names of the time. Instead of enjoying the spoils and their inheritance, these two men decided to make something out of it. They immersed themselves in education, in setting up institutes, using their contacts and resources to build the nation. We all have a little bit of Vikram and Homi in us. I mean we aren’t making a bomb or sending a rocket into space (smiles), but we are all driven by some level of passion.
You just said you could have been a physicist and you did give up architecture for acting. Given the unpredictable nature of the business you are in, are there moments of self-doubt?
I think there is unpredictability even in the most secure job in the world. But I love doing this so much that for me, acting is a means to survive. Nothing else really matters. I love it to the point of madness. The uncertainty of the business hasn’t worried me so far. I quite love it, I feel the need to do this. I love the prep that goes into a part, and what we are doing right now... talking about the people I play. I know this is my calling, happiness, joy peace....
Do you seek validation from outside or is the preparation and process of playing a part paramount for you?
We do it for an audience. Acting is not as solitary a thing as it may seem. While an actor’s life is autonomous, you have so many people you fall back on when you play a part on set. It’s a huge support system. Someone has to first believe in me to give me that opportunity to audition, and then cast me. When someone believes that you can pull off a part, then that’s half the battle won for an actor. That’s where motivation comes in... you feel you are not alone. I also feel that as an actor, I have taken a lot from all the people I have worked with. I have had a lot of people telling me what to do at every stage. It’s been a big help.
You have always told me how you love reading. Is there a recent read that had a huge impact on you?
I normally read a lot on the things I am working on at the time. Recently, I picked up some great books. While prepping for Rocket Boys, I got very interested in the literature of that time. It may not have had much relevance to what I had to do on set, but I loved it... writers like Raja Rao, Mulk Raj Anand, R.K. Narayan... I also read Premchand every now and then.