The 1960s were a tumultuous time for India. Nearly a decade following independence from the British, the stage was set to build a nation that adhered to the ideals of its freedom fighters.
And then came China.
Shortly after India offered asylum to the Dalai Lama – the highest spiritual leader and former head of state of Tibet who fled in the face of Chinese suppression in 1959 – border skirmishes between India and China became dangerously commonplace. This eventually culminated in the Sino-Indian War of 1962.
At the same time, two Indian nuclear scientists, Homi J. Bhabha and Vikram Sarabhai, acknowledged as the fathers of the Indian space programme, were hard at work against all odds to develop India’s very own nuclear arsenal.
Now, a new web series by SonyLIV, Rocket Boys, starring Jim Sarbh and Ishwak Singh, captures their illustrious and inspiring lives.
Created by Abhay Pannu, the series attempts to strike a fine balance between honouring their genius, patriotism and complex relationship.
The Sino-Indian war exacerbated the arms race in the region, and the pressure to create India’s first atom bomb naturally fell heavy on their shoulders. The perils of the arms race, and the frequent disagreement between Bhabha and Sarabhai over the ethics of it, also form a crucial portion of the series.
According to Satyanarayan Acharya, a nuclear physicist and scientific officer who has worked for over 30 years at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) named after Homi Bhabha, the show manages to fill a yawning gap in pop culture. “Their work needs to be understood because it is often forgotten with the passage of time,” he told VICE. “Particularly, the conditions and the pressures they worked under need to be brought to public awareness.”
We asked Acharya, who has helped develop particle accelerators for India during his career at BARC, to share what he thinks about the show – whether it does justice to the lives of Sarabhai and Bhabha, and how much creative license it ended up taking. Here’s what he had to say.
A Review of Rocket Boys by Satyanarayan Acharya, Nuclear Physicist
The show indeed starts with a disclaimer that it is fiction. So naturally, certain events will be and have been fictionalised. Yet, the intent of the makers cannot be faulted – it is apparent that their heart is in the right place.
For instance, in one of the scenes, Bhabha jumps into a water pool of the Apsara reactor (Asia’s first nuclear reactor built by India) to solve a problem. To break it down for you: Water is sometimes used as a moderator to slow down neutrons. The fuel rods in it will be radioactive when neutrons interact. Even when the machinery is switched off, the environment in the water will remain radioactive, and jumping into the pool would pose grave risk to life.
Another aspect of India’s ambitious nuclear programme was that of harnessing electrical power from the naturally-occurring radioactive metal thorium. Bhabha envisioned that it could be used for electrical power generation at a later stage. It was not an immediate goal as the show seems to suggest. It appears unreasonable that Nehru would put undue pressure on Bhabha for electrical power generation at the nascent stage of nuclear power research in India. The show seems to make a case that he did. Nehru, a man of scientific temperament, must have clearly understood the nature of thorium utilization as a long-term [and not immediate] goal.
However, the camaraderie between Bhabha and Nehru has been beautifully portrayed, particularly the part where Bhabha refers to the prime minister as bhai (brother). As historical archives and the letters exchanged between them reflect, they indeed shared that easy rapport.
As far as the timelines and chronology of events are concerned, Rocket Boys is on point. Both Bhabha and Sarabhai always maintained that nuclear weapons will only be used as a deterrent, in response to attacks, and never to attack first. The show accurately highlights the same.
All in all, the series might be educational for school and college students who might not have any clue about the contributions of Bhabha and Sarabhai. These people were fired by their imagination in science. They could’ve gone abroad where the environment was congenial, with proper infrastructure for nuclear research. But they chose to stay in India and build the foundation for nuclear technology and space research. They had to put up a good case and convince the nation that what they were doing was important. Our present success in operating indigenous power reactors, launching satellites etc., bear testimony to the efforts of Bhabha and Sarabhai. I’d like to believe that the series honours this sentiment.
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