The real-life story of a brilliant and enterprising rocket scientist who was implicated in a false espionage case at the height of his career could have been parlayed into a solid drama and an engaging character study.
The film, owing to the facile, disappointingly conventional nature of the storytelling, is neither. Given the range of personal and global themes that are at play, Rocketry – The Nambi Effect needed infinitely more imaginative writing and defter direction. Both departments were handled by R Madhavan, who is also the producer and lead actor of the film.
Madhavan the actor does a fine job of traversing a wide spectrum of moods – from the elation, ecstasy and cockiness fuelled by the character’s professional highs to the anguish and alarm triggered by the protagonist’s precipitous and sudden plummet into ignominy. Madhavan the director isn’t in the same league. He lags behind to the detriment of the film as a whole.
The Rocketry plot is built principally with blocks derived from the first-person accounts of the ISRO spy case provided by scientist Nambi Narayanan himself and career police officer P.M. Nair, the man who got to the bottom of the truth and proved that the accused was a victim of a conspiracy.
The film opens on the November 1994 morning that marked the beginning of the aerospace engineer’s ordeal when he is hauled away unceremoniously to a police station from outside a temple and his family is humiliated and assaulted for no fault of theirs.
Before we get there, an introductory sequence (it is overlaid with a full-bodied and mellifluous rendition of Sri Venkatesa Suprathama, an invocation hymn heralding the start of the day) of a rocket zooming into space is followed by an earthward dive that ends with the camera gliding gently towards at the entrance of Nambi Narayanan’s Trivandrum residence. The plunge from stratosphere is flashy all right, but it is dizzying and disorienting, too – a state that, to a certain extent, sums up what lies ahead in Rocketry – The Nambi Effect.
The film fares infinitely better when the plot veers deep in the second half towards the arrest and torture of Nambi Narayanan and an all-out dramatisation of the impact that the shocking turn of events has on his wife Meena (Simran, terrific in a curtailed role) and two grown-up children. The scenes in jail, where Intelligence Bureau men subject him to relentless third degree, are harrowing. They capture with telling effect the indignities heaped on the respected scientist even as he asserts his innocence.
The first half of the film is devoted entirely to establishing why Nambi Narayanan did not deserve such treatment. It highlights his many achievements as a student in the solid fuels programme at an Ivy League university who manages to shift to liquid fuels course and subsequently as a key scientist mentored by Vikaram A. Sarabhai, the father of Indian space programme.
The anecdotes of happier times are delivered through the framing device of Shahrukh Khan playing himself as a television talk show host tasked to get Nambi Narayanan’s side of the story a quarter century after his arrest in the ISRO spy case.
That is where the film tends to go somewhat awry. In trying to project Nambi Narayanan as the fount of all great things that happened in ISRO in the 1970s and 1980s, it loses balance. His team members – three of them, Unni (Sam Mohan), Param (Rajeev Ravindranathan) and Sartaj Singh (Bhawsheel Sahni), get some play – are rarely allowed to be anything more than hangers-on and cheerleaders.
Everything that ISRO does – from a deal with a Rolls Royce CEO to an agreement with the French space agency to the launch of the Vikas rocket engine to the securing of support from the Russians even as the USSR disintegrates – is credited singly to him. The likes of Sarabhai (played by Rajit Kapoor) and subsequent ISRO chairmen (Satish Dhawan and U.R. Rao) were in charge of India’s space plans at that point of the nation’s history but these men, too, stay largely in the shadows.
The way in which he operates suggests that Nambi Narayanan had a carte blanche from his bosses to make commitments at will. When he is before ISRO chairman Satish Dhawan suggesting that India could tide over the limitations of its financial resources by sending scientists to work with and study the French space programme, he already has the memorandum of understanding with the team behind the Ariane project all typed out and bound for his superior’s perusal.
Surely, the political and scientific establishment would have had a say in big decisions pertaining to the space programme. The film would have us believe that it did not. It is hard to digest the fact that Satish Dhawan would be caught unawares by Nambi Narayanan’s French stratagem. Dramatic licence is one thing but going overboard is quite another. Rocketry resorts far more to the latter than the former.
The Prime Minister’s Office is mentioned only once in passing and the names of Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, P.V. Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh, who were in office between the late 1960s and 2013 – the time span that the film covers – are studiously avoided.
The successful launch of the Mars Orbiter Mangalyaan in November 2013 by ISRO “at the cost of a Hollywood science fiction movie” and on the very first go at that is alluded to with justifiable pride and compared to the astronomical costs and failed attempts that other space club nations encountered. The film returns to the Mars project at its the fag-end where the possibility of a resurrection of Nambi Narayanan’s reputation is suggested.
The reluctance of this film to make any reference to political personages of earlier decades is understandable – it would be at variance with the current narrative that nothing happened in India in first 60-odd years of Independence.
Meanwhile, Anupam Kher took to Instagram to congratulate Madhavan for the film and wrote, “Watched #RocketryTheFilm based on #NambiNarayanan’s life. OUTSTANDING! MOVING!!INSPIRATIONAL! Cried my heart out. Every Indian should watch it! And say sorry to #NambiNarayanan sir. That is how we can correct some wrongs done in the past. Bravo dear #Madhavan! Proud of you! #Courage #Nationalism #MagicOfMovies.”
In the video, he can be heard praising Madhavan. He said, “Thank you Madhavan for making such a brilliant film. If the film can inspire me, it will surely inspire today’s generation. Thank you Nambi Sahab for your life.”
Madhavan took to his Instagram stories to thank the veteran actor. He re-shared the video and wrote, “Just don’t know what to say…you have such a large heart, sir. In every sense of the word. I feel so blessed and rejuvenated. Thank you from the bottoms of our hearts sir.”