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'Rocket Boys': Why We Need To Talk About Homi Sethna, the 'Force' Behind Pokhran

Dr Homi Sethna laid the foundations of the first nuclear experiment much before it was performed in 1974.

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The last few minutes of the finale of Rocket Boys reek of an unmissable tension. A storm, literally, in the desert; figuratively, in the fatiguing minds of the scientists, is nearing closure. Everyone on the ground, and away, everyone in the know of the mission behind Smiling Buddha hopes.

A little against hope, a little as a leap of the faith they’ve shown on themselves thus far. Dastidar, the man entrusted with the responsibility of pressing the button, in what is the last millimile before the finish line, completes the task with ease.

Tick-tock, tick-tock. The sand begins to fall, the glass hour empties in seconds. What follows is a thunderous noise, and a shake of the earth, like a mass of the ground has been swallowed by its core.

These are all reassuring cues. Everyone on the site looks outside still, just to double-check. A crater has befallen the sand bed.

India, they realise, has entered the league of the nuclear armed nations. The mission is successful – as envisioned.

The strength of the second, and the final season of Rocket Boys, that was released on Sony Liv on 16 March, lies in crafting evocative moments like the climax above.

The series entails conflict, despair, anguish, love, joy, relief; all the rasas a drama could conjure to hold the attention of a viewer. It works well too, for the fictitious web manages to cast its net.

Until some loopholes in that net come to the fore. It’s in these instances, when the storyline of the show, which is a historical drama by definition, is unable to fulfill its motto of portraying the past – as it were.

Key figures go missing, timelines are mishmashed, crucial events are overlooked – all to make it dramatically taut. The strength of the show also becomes its weakness then, as every dramatic still comes fraught with a possibility of the distortion of the historical.

Dr Homi Sethna's absence from the narrative is perhaps the most glaring of all.

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Dr Homi Sethna, the 'Guiding Force' Behind Pokhran

Dr Homi Sethna laid the foundations of the first nuclear experiment much before it was performed in 1974. A graduate of the University of Michigan, he’d come to develop the first reprocessing plant – used to generate the Plutonium element needed for nuclear experiment – in 1959; spearheading a team composed entirely of Indian scientists.

Widely regarded as the ‘guiding force’ behind the first nuclear tests of the nation in Pokhran, of which the show claims to be a narrative tryst, he’s nowhere to be found until the penultimate episode.

Even then, Sethna is given about a couple of dialogues, and a momentary handshake with Dr Sarabhai, before being relegated to an invisible background. The show doesn’t clarify his presence at the testing site either, as it proceeds to neatly obscure him, and by extension, his pivotal role in one of the most significant chapters of independent India’s political and scientific journey.

In his interview in the programme ‘Carter’s New World,’ in 1987, Sethna claimed how the literature available on reprocessing, from the countries who’d already harnessed the technology was entirely incorrect. And that he and his team had to find the working principles themselves, by means of trial and error. “We got a window..but then we were on our own,” he said, underscoring the strides they had made, after having received minimal help from the globe.

Sethna’s Role in Nuclear Tests, And The Medley of Timelines

It was perhaps his indigenous firmaments that lead Sethna to persuade the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to give her assent to a peaceful-nuclear experiment, in the hope of adding a layer to the defence shield of the country.

Sethna was the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission when the tests took place, and monitored the situation on-ground, along with the other scientists involved.

His weight in the scheme of things was most visible after the success of the test, when he called the Prime Minister to apprise her of the same. The series, however, doesn’t contain any of this.

The glaring absence of Sethna’s figure from the series is emblematic of the larger problem it creates for itself, that of juggling and mixing timelines with each other. In what seems to be a hasty effort at depicting India’s shot at acquiring the nuclear arsenal, the series skips and mixes years between Dr Bhabha and Dr Sarabhai and Dr Sethna.

It also avoids, rather omits the much invigorating scientific debates between these scientists and their ilk. As Itty Abraham notes in his book “The Making of the Indian Atomic Bomb,” Sethna, as Raja Ramanna, albeit hailing from the Bhabha school of thought, were far more cautious than their adventurous professor in their approach; while also being in opposition to Sarabhai’s vision. Rocket Boys although doesn’t spare any indulgences for their differences.

The Burden Of Historical Dramas

The genre of historical dramas is a burgeoning one, even as it carries the dual responsibility of shouldering the history and drama in just about necessary proportions.

The shows of the likes of The Crown and Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer’s Story faced enormous backlash for the undue fictionalisation of the narrative, where “events, made up—[were] meant to seem real.” The latter even saw a lawsuit being filed against the creators, for maligning the reputation of a prosecutor in the case.

The essential need for veracity in a historical drama arises from their promise to offer a visually rich sneak-peek into the past, which also somewhat becomes a reason for their popular appeal. A failure to do so, as in the case of Rocket Boys, betrays irresponsibility at best, and dishonesty at worst.

The case of Rocket Boys is a tad surprising too in that sense, for the director of show Abhay Pannu, very categorically denounced any “dramatisation that makes the show manipulative.”

No good reason, though, exists in defence of the obliteration of Sethna’s contribution from the second season of the show. A full-fledged arc of the cornerstone of India’s nuclear program could’ve also carried on with the show’s endeavour of capturing the emotive. The story of Sethna’s first encounter with Homi Bhabha could’ve been one.
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The two met at the Wellington Pool at the Haji Ali in Mumbai. A spat on how to create pure alcohol ensued, culminating in Bhabha picking Sethna for a rare earth metal company the next day. This is just one. Many more such stories could’ve been found, and weaved into the fabric of the show, keeping both the historicity and the dramatisation intact. The second season of Rocket Boys may’ve then enjoyed a yield as good as the tests at Pokhran perhaps.

(The Quint reached out to the director Abhay Pannu and the creator Nikkhil Advani for a comment, but didn't receive any response. The article will be updated if they respond.)

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