Nikkhil Advani reveals how Rocket Boys cast was chosen, says ‘Jim Sarbh was a given’

Ahead of the premiere of season two of Rocket Boys, showrunner and producer Nikkhil Advani shares that the protagonists, scientists Homi Bhabha and Vikram Sarabhai will face new challenges and have to deal with newer conflicts within themselves and with each other. The award-winning series stars Jim Sarbh and Ishwak Singh in the lead roles. (Also read: Siddharth Roy Kapur says Rocket Boys is a rare show that both educates and entertains: ‘It captured the imagination’)

In an interview with Hindustan Times, Nikkhil spoke about how he got excited upon hearing the story of Rocket Boys for the first time, his initial plans to direct and how the team worked on making the science in the show entertaining for audiences. Excerpts below:

What was your first reaction when the story of Rocket Boys came to you via co-producer Siddharth Roy Kapur?

Four years ago, when Abhay Korane, who had worked on the story, narrated it, I was a bit amazed. Being a science student myself and being somebody who prides himself of being well versed in history as well as current affairs, I didn’t know that Homi Bhabha and Vikram Sarabhai had any kind of connection. I knew both men individually as great scientists, as great Renaissance men and great pioneers in the field that they had both worked in. Also as a filmmaker and storyteller, it amazed me that the conflict was ready. Two friends or mentor-student, guru-shishya, but they had such a large conflict in their life in the way they actually wanted to use nuclear energy. When you’re looking for a story to tell, you’re looking for interesting characters and certain things. Everything seemed to already belong, without us having to make up anything. It was quite incredible. People say a story waiting to be told, it really was a story waiting to be told.

When this came to you and you began working on it, did you think about directing it yourself at any point?

Yes, I was meant to direct it. But I think that more and more, over the last couple of years, my strength as a showrunner-producer has been to be able to identify what my own so-called limitations are. I think Abhay [Pannu] is the only person who could have done what he is doing. I think that when I chose to let Mitakshara [Kumar] direct The Empire and Abhay direct Rocket Boys, they were possibly the best decisions that one could take. When I talk about my limitations, I don’t mean as a storyteller, there is a certain level of patience and therao (pause) that is required in Rocket Boys which I don’t have in my personality. I would have not been able to do what Abhay has done as a writer-director.

How did you work with Abhay Pannu to bring the show to life?

As one of the partners in Emmay, as a showrunner in everything that Emmay does, and as a creative producer amongst the three of us in Emmay, that is my job. So it’s not as if I did it only with Abhay. I do it with everybody. Whenever we choose to even consider a project for development, that decision is taken when all three of us meet the concerned person. All three of us are aligned that this person is somebody who will be able to tell this story correctly and then I sit with that person. Of course, there are certain requirements from a platform or a studio, certain requirements from actors, and certain requirements from the story itself. My job is to guide and steer them towards that. At the same time, to be able to defend whatever they want to try and do.

Rocket Boys blends history, drama and science in a very engaging manner for the audience, how did the writers work to nail that balance?

Right at the very onset, getting Abhay to do the writing and directing was a godsend because he’s an engineer and a consummate storyteller himself. Being my associate director, he also had to control me at times. But I think that what we do is we kind of make it extremely collaborative. When we wanted to incorporate science, the first thing that we did was that science should be treated as if it was magic. There is a certain level of mysticism to it. That’s why we see the first scene where Homi Bhabha shows a Wilson cloud chamber in season one to his students, it’s almost as if he’s performing a magic trick. That’s how we made science entertaining.

Casting on this show is quite key as well. Did you already have a few actors in mind before you started?

I think Jim Sarbh is a given, considering that what we wanted is an actor with a certain Western nuance and tilt. Dr Bhabha himself was extremely Westernised. He grew up in Bombay of the 1940s, 50s and 60s, and studied in Cambridge. We knew that we would need the actors to be dedicated for a year. A year became two years because of the pandemic. It was important for us to see that kind of dedication which we saw in Jim.

Ishwak, when I saw him in Pataal Lok, I chose to do a short film for the Unpaused anthology. I worked with him for a day and I was very impressed. I spoke to Abhay about it, and Abhay met up with Ishwak. The advantage with Ishwak was that the theatre group he was working with in Delhi had done a play along with Mallika Sarabhai and Darpana [dance academy] in Ahmedabad. So they knew each other. When I told Mallika that Ishwak is playing her father Vikram Sarabhai, she was absolutely okay with it.

Regina Cassandra and Saba [Azad]’s casting is completely Kavish Sinha, who is an incredible casting director who is doing all the casting for our company. He really pushes wanting to use a fresh face. At Emmay, most of the time, we are doing stuff which is pretty realistic with Mrs Chatterjee Vs Norway, Mumbai Diaries, Batla House, Rocket Boys, Airlift, Freedom At Midnight, which we are doing right now. His whole approach is to try and get the actor to be physically and somewhere mentally connected to the real-life character.

Along the journey of shooting both seasons together, what were the most challenging aspects of the show when you were working on it?

The thing is when you’re doing a period or a recent history kind of show where you don’t have the kind of budgets to make sets… At the end of the day, SonyLIV today can consider itself to be a very big platform. But when we started out with Rocket Boys, they were also just starting out. They had done Scam 1992 and Maharani but Rocket Boys was still something that was one of their most ambitious projects. Every day, when you’re shooting a show like this, is a challenge. But then when you have to deal with the pandemic, it becomes pretty crazy.

I’m sure the costs must have gone very high as well.

Of course, the cost went high but I think everybody pitched in to make sure that we didn’t let go of the teams. We kept the teams for the six-seven months where nobody was doing any work. We had the team working round the clock, just making sure that they were not demoralised. I think the important thing is to keep them motivated and to keep them motivated throughout. While working on a film, it’s like doing a sprint, while working on a show, it’s like running a marathon. You must have the stamina. That level of mental concentration is also very important.

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