SonyLIV’s Rocket Boys, about Indian scientists Dr. Homi J. Bhabha and Dr. Vikram Sarabhai, was one of the most popular and critically acclaimed web series in India last year, winning multiple awards for its performances, writing and direction.
Created by Nikkhil Advani and directed by Abhay Pannu, the series was set over three decades from the 1940s to 1960s and followed Bhabha’s attempts to launch India’s nuclear program and Sarabhai’s attempts to launch the country’s space program. Jim Sarbh and Ishawk Singh played the two scientists, and the show was produced by Siddharth Roy Kapur’s Roy Kapur Films and Advani’s Emmay Entertainment.
With Season 2 launching today (March 16), Advani and Roy Kapur talked to Deadline about how the story has been taken forward and how India’s recent history has become a hot new topic in local drama. Again, directed by Pannu, Season 2 covers the decade from 1964-1974 and faced an immediate challenge in that both of the lead characters died relatively young during that period – Bhabha at the age of 56 in a plane crash near Mont Blanc in Switzerland and Sarabhai of cardiac arrest at the age of 52.
But Roy Kapur explains that the second season details the “passing of the baton” from these two prominent figures to other scientists who continued their work, including APJ Abdul Kalam, Dr Raja Ramanna and Dr Sethna.
“It’s the story of India as well as the two men,” says Roy Kapur. “The first season told the story of the birth of India as a nation and a gave a sense of how precarious it was in those early days of Independence and the debate around becoming a nuclear power. In the second season, we have other characters who come to the foreground and take the story forward.”
Advani adds that it’s also about passing the baton from one leader to another – as the second season also portrays the death of India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and following a turbulent few years in which India had a few different leaders, the rise of Indira Gandhi, who is played by Charu Shankar in the show.
“While the show is called Rocket Boys, in Season 2 there’s a very prominent rocket girl,” says Advani. “When Nehru died, these two men, who’d had open access to his office, found the powers that be were not quite as open to science and discovery. So it was the rise of Indira Gandhi that allowed them to do what they needed to do.”
Although Advani says that both seasons of the show use some poetic licence and introduce fictional characters, all the major events in India’s history – including Operation Smiling Buddha, the country’s first successful nuclear bomb test, which is depicted in Season 2 – are portrayed pretty much as they happened. The second season also delves into some theories around the early deaths of the two scientists, including claims that the plane crash that killed Bhabha was orchestrated by the CIA in an attempt to shut down India’s nuclear program.
When asked why a show about science is so popular, Advani says it taps into a rising interest in India to explore the country’s recent history, in part due to the country celebrating the 75th anniversary of Indian Independence in 2022, but also due to the fact that streaming platforms have enabled the development of this kind of drama. Before the rise of OTT, Indian historical drama tended to take the form of long-running series set in the country’s ancient past that never even attempted to stick to the facts.
“There’s more acceptance now of realistic content,” says Advani. “Rocket Boys was like a breath of fresh air when it first came out – parents were telling their kids to watch the show because they felt the story of these two scientists was so important.”
Both Advani and Roy Kapur says they are separately developing further series in this space. Advani is adapting Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre’s non-fiction book Freedom At Midnight, about events around the Indian independence movement and partition, for SonyLIV.
Roy Kapur Films is also working on an as-yet-unannounced series for SonyLIV about the period of Indian history from 1930 to 1950. Separately from the streamer, he’s also developing an English-language adaptation of William Dalrymple’s The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise Of The East India Company, covering events from 1600 until the 1850s, when the British monarchy took over the administration of India.
“Other production houses are developing shows about Mahatma Gandhi or set during that period around Independence,” says Advani. “There seems to be huge interest in recent history, because we’re celebrating the 75th anniversary, and everyone seems to have a point of view or a story to tell about what happened in 1947.”
Roy Kapur and Advani also say that a third season of Rocket Boys is a possibility. “We’ll think about it and sit down with SonyLIV when the time is right,” says Roy Kapur. “There are new generations of scientists, and the story of our nuclear and space programmes could be extended all the way through to contemporary times.”
Advani launched Emmay Entertainment with Monisha Advani and Madhu Bhojwani in 2011, and has produced and/or directed big Bollywood films such as D-Day, Airlift and Batla House. The company started making web series in 2020 with Hasmukh for Netflix; and has also produced Mumbai Diaries 26/11, about the Mumbai terrorist attacks, for Prime Video; and The Empire, about the 16th century Mughal empire, for Disney+ Hotstar.
A former head of Disney India, Roy Kapur launched Roy Kapur Films in 2017 and has also produced The Sky Is Pink, starring Priyanka Chopra Jonas, which premiered at Toronto in 2019, Netflix original movie Yeh Ballet, and web series Aranyak, also for Netflix. He was also a producer on Pan Nalin’s Last Film Show, which was India’s entry for the Best International Feature category of the Oscars.
Roy Kapur Films has three features in the pipeline – Raja Krishna Menon’s war epic Pippa, co-produced with Ronnie Screwvala’s RSVP, and comedies Woh Ladki Hai Kahan?, co-produced by Junglee Pictures, and Bas Karo Aunty, co-produced with RSVP and Earthsky Pictures, which also stars Rocket Boy’s Iskwak Singh.