16th March 2023

Rocket Boys 2 review: drowned by its aspirations of grandeur

Enamoured by politics and conspiracies, the SonyLIV original series forgets what made it interesting.

Akhil Arora, a member of the Film Critics Guild and a Rotten Tomatoes-certified film critic

Jim Sarbh as Homi Bhabha in Rocket Boys 2
Jim Sarbh as Homi Bhabha in Rocket Boys 2 // Photo: SonyLIV

In its first season, Rocket Boys confidently delivered a largely entertaining account of independent India’s early scientific pursuits—through the eyes of nuclear programme chief Homi Bhabha (Jim Sarbh) and space programme leader Vikram Sarabhai (Ishwak Singh)—even as it took creative liberty with events, characters, and the science involved. But the end of season 1 signalled it was not content in telling just that story. Rocket Boys had aspirations of grandeur. It displayed a penchant for embellishing their lives—especially Bhabha’s, featuring a sprinkling of CIA, double agents, and nefarious plots—with details and accounts that were entirely in the realm of speculative fiction.

This was made possible partly thanks to a vacuum. Rocket Boys not only continues that streak, but expands upon it in the second and final season, out now on SonyLIV. Though Bhabha died in a plane crash brought about by a misunderstanding, a lack of clear answers—the black box was never recovered—and flimsy decades-old assassination theories are like a gold mine for the series creators Nikkhil Advani and Abhay Pannu. (The latter is also the sole director, and writer alongside Kausar Munir who contributes to the dialogues.) They lean further and further into that territory, as Rocket Boys loses its feet on the ground that it largely kept to in the first season.

Distracted and run aground

The conspiracy and the CIA storyline pretty much derail the entire show. It doesn’t help that the white actors and their delivery are the weakest parts of the show. Rocket Boys season 2 devotes too much screen time to the created characters—Vishwesh Mathur (K.C. Mathur) and Raza Mehdi (Dibyendu Bhattacharya), who work alongside Bhabha at the atomic research facility—but fails to ever sketch them beyond what the plot demands. A fictional take on Bhabha’s rival and the renowned Dalit astrophysicist Meghnad Saha, Raza was made into a semi-villain Muslim in season 1. And he’s turned into a scapegoat on season 2—and ultimately run aground.

Rocket Boys wastes so much time on all this that it loses sight of the big picture. Before it began, its creators had to know the story—of India’s intertwined efforts in space and nuclear fission—transcends its dual leads. That meant Bhabha and Sarabhai were walking around with expiry labels around their necks the moment we first saw them in season 1. But season 2 gets caught up with national-level politics, while ignoring the need to establish new characters who are central to its main thread: India’s first atom bomb test. That is evident from the fact that Charu Shankar (Siyaasat), who plays Indira Gandhi, is the only new main cast addition to Rocket Boys season 2.

Distracted and led astray—it seems to be working overtime in putting Bhabha and Sarabhai in the inner circle of the country’s top leaders—Rocket Boys season 2 fizzles out and self-combusts before it can ever truly take off. And given how it wraps everything up with an epilogue that chronicles the events and achievements to come, we aren’t getting any more of this story. This is it.

Rocket Boys 2: the plot

Kicking off at the tail end just like season 1, Rocket Boys season 2 opens in 1974 on the morning of Pokhran-I. It then jumps back 10 years to pick up around where we left off last time around—with the four principal characters all in their own worlds. Mrinalini Sarabhai (Regina Cassandra) is running her performing arts institute Darpana in Ahmedabad, estranged of sorts from Vikram and tired of her success being defined in her husband’s terms. Over in Trivandrum, Vikram—with A.P.J. Abdul Kalam (Arjun Radhakrishnan) amongst his team—is readying another launch while dealing with new budgetary constraints put on by Congress politicians who don’t have the same zeal for space as a bedridden Jawaharlal Nehru (Rajit Kapur).

Regina Cassandra as Mrinalini Sarabhai in Rocket Boys 2
Regina Cassandra as Mrinalini Sarabhai in Rocket Boys 2 // Photo: SonyLIV

In Delhi after her marriage, Parwana “Pipsy” Irani (Saba Azad) is operating like a kids’ factory. And back in Bombay, Bhabha is secretly trying to create a second reactor that would give India its own stash of plutonium—something they need to make the atomic bomb that was sanctioned by Nehru towards the end of season 1. Naturally, the Americans don’t want that to happen, which is why they’ve (the fictitious) Prosenjit Dey (Namit Das) continuing to sabotage his efforts with the help of Mathur. This was the weakest and most unnecessary link of Rocket Boys season 1, and it doesn’t improve in intrigue, thrills, or depiction on season 2.

Rocket Boys feels like House of Cards

If the final few episodes of season 1 made you think that Kalam would’ve a bigger part to play in season 2, then that hope is misplaced. For the most part—I’ve seen all eight episodes—he’s as much a periphery character as he was in season 1. He only emerges to the fore once Bhabha and Sarabhai aren’t around. In fact, there’s ultimately so much politics and conspiracy stuff in Rocket Boys season 2 that Pipsy and Mrinalini also fall by the wayside. (Cassandra and Azad are still billed third and fourth, but their involvement is reduced.) There’s no shortage of historical figures, with the likes of Indira, K. Kamaraj, and Yashwantrao Chavan joining the returning Morarji Desai and Lal Bahadur Shastri.

For what it’s worth, some of it is naturally woven in. In one extended sequence as India’s leader lies at the edge of death, everyone who’s gathered attempts to steer the ship in the direction they desire. Rocket Boys is unafraid to show the ugliness. At times, it’s solemn—which is welcome when you’re dealing with figures whose legacy has been relentlessly attacked for propaganda reasons in the era of Hindu nationalism.

Charu Shankar as Indira Gandhi in Rocket Boys 2
Charu Shankar as Indira Gandhi in Rocket Boys 2 // Photo: SonyLIV

Elsewhere, with the help of hindsight and creative freedom, it hints at Indira’s Machiavellian streak, in how her early moments in the field of politics echo the darkness that India’s democracy would ultimately descend into. But even when the politics doesn’t stick out like a sore thumb, it detracts from the tale’s focus—and makes Rocket Boys feel like House of Cards.

A more sombre Rocket Boys

On rare occasions, Rocket Boys season 2 does make time for the private lives of Homi, Pipsy, Vikram, and Mrinalini. (While Sarbh is the most charismatic of all, Azad and Cassandra play their characters well, though Singh stills feels a little too plain to me.) It doesn’t matter if these interactions are fictional, because it gives us what we want—which is to spend time with this quartet.

Tragedy is the name of the game sadly. The cost of war truly hits home, with a single mother left to pick up the pieces with her two young children. Elsewhere, as the on-the-rocks Sarabhai marriage further deteriorates, Rocket Boys season 2 thankfully doesn’t opt for easy answers and solutions. It’s not always handled so well though. Homi’s death—sorry, is this a spoiler?—is telegraphed. You can tell it’s coming like a mile away, thanks to all the drama, the phone calls, and the sweet reflecting conversation shared between a couple.

Death is everywhere in Rocket Boys season 2, which is more sombre than season 1. It’s also a much more contained affair—while season 1 was set across three decades, the first six episodes of season 2 just cover a span of three years. In that sense, Rocket Boys is a bit like Narcos, which slowed down in season 2, after a blitz-y season 1, as it approached the end of Pablo Escobar. But while the Netflix series used that as an opportunity to do more character work, the SonyLIV series sadly opts for more plot fluff.

Arjun Radhakrishnan as A.P.J. Abdul Kalam in Rocket Boys 2
Arjun Radhakrishnan as A.P.J. Abdul Kalam in Rocket Boys 2 // Photo: SonyLIV

Rocket Boys eats itself whole

The first season’s “can-do” spirit, so to speak, has given way to grand conspiracies and proclamations of war in the second season of Rocket Boys. On one level, that makes sense. After all, its protagonists have risen in stature and been pulled into projects of a larger magnitude. Bhabha is developing weapons of mass destruction, while Sarabhai is—unknowingly—helping to lay the foundation for India’s ballistic missile programme. Viewed from that perspective, some of those changes were bound to happen.

But it throws away too much of its runtime to tinfoil hats and characters that ought to have been on the periphery. At the same time, by restricting itself to the lives of its dual leads—the future of Kalam and other supporting characters is laid out at the very end in a combination of text and archival footage—it does a disservice to those who carried forward the legacy of Bhabha and Sarabhai. Rocket Boys eats itself whole in its sophomore run.

All eight episodes of Rocket Boys season 2 released on Thursday, March 16 at 12 am IST on SonyLIV.

Akhil Arora

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