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Restoring the lost legacies of brilliant Indian minds
TANUL THAKUR  31st May 2014

A Google Doodle celebrating the 125th birth-anniversary of C.V. Raman

.V. Raman was convinced he had conceived an idea that would win him the Nobel Prize. But he didn't have enough money to buy a spectrograph. He shot a letter to G.D. Birla stating his demand in no less clear words: "Give me money to buy a spectrograph. And if you give me the money, I promise I will bring the Nobel Prize in one year." G.D. Birla fulfilled Raman's demand. Later, Raman published a paper in the Indian Journal of Physics, and sent it to several Nobel laureates — Niels Bohr, Ernest Rutherford and others — along with a terse declaration: "I believe this is a Nobel Prize winning discovery. You must nominate me for the Nobel prize." This scene almost comes unannounced in the documentary The Quantum Indians, which chronicles the lives of India's three celebrated scientists — C.V. Raman, Satyendra Nath Bose and Meghnad Saha — but it compels you to think how much do we really know about them. A lot of us know about the "Raman effect" and its indelible impact on the world of science, but Raman — like other eminent Indian scientists — has mainly been a disembodied figure, alive only through his discoveries, not what materialised them.

We live in times of archival paucity, and this reason alone makes Raja Choudhury's The Quantum Indians a significant effort. But Choudhury didn't just stumble on the stories of these scientists by accident; he gravitated towards them with a tinge of befuddlement and misgiving: "In 2012, when the Boson particle was announced, there was no conversation on S.N. Bose in international media at all. That riled me a little," says Choudhury. "He was being seen as a 'forgotten hero.'" Choudhury also soon found out that Bose's life-story didn't exist in isolation: it was tethered to two other important lives, and their stories coalesced to form a narrative about a bunch of Indians who were working with limited means to leave their imprints on the world of basic science. "There are some moments in time that change history," he says. "And if you look at it, that moment can be pointed out to the Calcutta University in the 1920s, when three people overcame the shackles of colonial rule to leave a lasting impact on the world of science."

The documentary dignifies these scientists by recognising and understanding them as people. And even though it’s not designed as one, The Quantum Indians also works as a poignant tribute.

The documentary unfolds in a series of chapters, devoting separate segments to each of the three scientists. And in spite of them being set in the same place and period, you are not jaded by familiarity. Each segment has a definite character because it's centered on three disparate individuals: "Soon, it became quite clear to me that it was the story of three Indian Gods. One was a man who was determined to win the Nobel Prize at any cost; the other was an artist, mathematician, musician, who didn't care about fame," says Choudhury. "And Meghnad Saha was the builder of institutions — he wanted to build a new India." The documentary dignifies these scientists by recognising and understanding them as people. And even though it's not designed as one, The Quantum Indians also works as a poignant tribute. Because can there be a more fitting tribute to these lives by painstakingly understanding their journeys? The scientists have not been hastily and lazily bracketed under one category; they have been bestowed the honour of individuality.

On 3 May 2014, The Quantum Indians won the National Award for the Best Educational film. It is also slowly finding its audience — it's been uploaded on YouTube, it has already been screened on Doordarshan, and Choudhury is in talks to screen it on the Discovery Southeast Asia as well. Documentaries like these exist because the celebrated can be ignored for only so long.

Quite early in the film, Falguni Sarkar, S.N. Bose's grandson, says all his life he had heard about how great and famous his grandfather was. His parents told him his grandfather used to work with Albert Einstein: "I always went to bookstores to look for the biography section, and pick up a book on Einstein, and flip to the back of the index and look up B. And I saw there was always 'Bose' there," says Sarkar. "It made me feel good." He says it as a matter of fact, without any cloying sentimentality, but the gnawing questions remain with us: is this is the best we can do for someone of S.N. Bose's calibre? Should the legacy of one of the brightest minds of the country be confined to the bibliographies of books on foreign scientists?

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