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'India's Space Odyssey' is the story of ordinary people doing extraordinary work: director Pria Somiah

Somiah on documenting six successful decades of India’s space programme

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Mumbai: ‘India’s Space Odyssey’, the all-new discovery+ Original currently steaming exclusively on the platform celebrates the 60-year-long successful journey of India’s space programme pioneered by the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro).

Produced by Miditech Studios and narrated in Hindi by actor and space enthusiast R Madhavan, the documentary depicts how this mission started by Dr Homi Bhabha and Dr Vikram Sarabhai was taken forward by their able successors including the former president of India Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, Prof Satish Dhawan, and Dr G Madhavan Nair.

The documentary captures landmark achievements of India’s Space Programme which help in understanding the tough circumstances under which Isro scripted its success story beginning with SLV3, and more recently the 'Chandraayan' and 'Mangalyaan' missions as well as the Organisation’s most ambitious 'Gaganyaan' programme which will be India’s first manned mission to space.  

However, beyond the triumph and celebration is a story of sheer grit and determination that kept the mission going in the face of tribulations, limitations as well as condescension from certain quarters, and this is what director Pria Somiah intended to capture in the 48-minute-long documentary.  

Somiah is an award-winning film-maker, having won a Green Oscar and several accolades at New York Festivals World’s Best Television & Film Award, UNICEF Asia Pacific Child Rights Award - Hanoi, International Gold Panda Award, Sichuan TV Festival, Cine Golden Eagle Awards, USA and World Media Festival for documentaries such as ‘Mangalyaan: India’s Mission to Mars’, ‘Megafloods: Kerala’, ‘Mumbai Attack’, ‘IC 814 Hijack’, ‘Silent Screams: India’s fight against rape’, ‘Megastructures: Mumbai’s Chattrapati International Airport’, ‘Skeleton Lake’, ‘Inside: Asia’s Largest Prison’, ‘India’s Game Changers’, ‘Undercover Asia: Girls for Sale’, and ‘Freedom to Love (Honour Killings)’.

As the executive director at Miditech Studios, the television production company with which she has been associated for over 28 years, Somiah is responsible for content strategy and business development for a variety of content formats for internet platforms and international broadcasters such NatGeo, Discovery Channel, BBC World, Disney, Turner, UN Organisations, as well Indian Government Ministries, to name a few.

In this candid interview, Somiah takes us through the making of ‘India’s Space Odyssey’ as well as the thrill and challenges of documenting monumental events that strengthened India's resolution of becoming a leader in space exploration.

Edited Excepts

On the idea behind India’s Space Odyssey

With new and ambitious missions like Gaganyaan being planned, and the encouragement of the private sector to enter Space Tech, India’s Space program is a highly topical issue. We felt the story of how we got here is an important one to tell.

While documenting the Mars Mission for NatGeo a few years ago, I was involved with a lot of research during which I learnt that 1962 was when India’s space programme actually started and it’s going to be 60 years in 2022. Because this coincided roughly with 75 years of the country’s independence, it was also the perfect timing I thought. And that’s when we pitched the idea of doing a commemorative film to Discovery.

On building the narrative

With India’s Space Odyssey we wanted to put out not just facts, but a holistic understanding of how events unfolded at Isro through national and global events that impacted our space programme, and other significant factors such as India’s policy of non-alignment. So we built the narrative around three themes - scientific milestones, the impact of global events, and then visualising all of this through archive material, biographies, photographs etc.

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On the process and elements involved

We waded through archive material from different sources in India as well as Nasa and Roscosmos and interviewed experts from Isro, Nasa, and Glavkosmos to get an Indian and international perspective of how different events unfolded; a sort of anecdotal telling in parts.

Asif Siddiqi, the space historian, and professor at Fordham University, New York, helped context the impact of global politics on India’s space program.

As a storytelling device, hand-drawn animation was used to bring alive a moment in history. These were created by well-known animation director Prakash Moorthy. Especially composed music by Shantanu Sudame set the mood of events as they unfolded. 3D animation done by Purple Monkey was used to visualise the big missions to Moon and Mars. The script was written by Joshua Whitehead.

On the biggest challenge of telling this story

It’s a challenge to tell the story of 60 years in a one-hour documentary so we chose turning points in the history of India’s Space program, e.g., the choice of Thumba, Kerala, as a Rocket launch site and how it was officially designated a UN International Scientific Facility in 1968. This got the world’s space scientists to Kerala and Indian scientists greatly benefited from those interactions as one saw these relationships grow over the decades to come.

Another turning point came with the ability to launch our own satellites. The SLV 3 story, with its initial problems and subsequent success, exemplifies the dedication and innovative, never-say-die spirit of Isro’s scientists.

On the most elating experience while making the documentary

Through this documentary, we have tried to capture the spirit of Isro and the culture of critical analysis it has nurtured over the years where even a junior scientist can question the project director.

These are people without fancy degrees; they come from provincial engineering colleges and have really worked their way up. They have grown within the Isro system working with indigenous technology. The most well-known example is that of one of Isro’s most senior scientists and directors - SATCOM, TK Anuradha who began as a graduate. ‘India’s Space Odyssey’ is thus the story of ordinary people doing extraordinary work.

On the role of media in India’s Space Diplomacy

Whether it’s putting up a fleet of satellites or sending a mission to Mars, these are huge scientific endeavours involving mindboggling complexity. India’s space story is pretty unique in that, unlike certain other organisations we did not have large resources at our disposal. Despite these challenges we are among the top six space agencies in the world today - a victory considered impossible by some around the world.

So, yes, these stories need to be told. After IT, space tech is one of our strengths, and now with the Prime Minister encouraging private players, it will definitely emerge as a big growth area for India. The media has a very big role to play in documenting successes like these. 

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