Rocketry: The Nambi Effect is a film about an eccentric, imperfect man who isn’t very likeable, but his brilliance and patriotism are unquestionable. Based on Nambi Narayanan, an ISRO scientist who had been falsely accused of being a spy, the movie has gathered wide acclaim across Indian audiences and critics alike. Directed and acted in by R. Madhavan himself, it is his show through and through, except for the bits when Shah Rukh Khan makes his presence in a cameo. Madhavan takes all the spotlight in the movie, and the rest of the cast remains peripheral to the drama.
The Nambi Narayanan case is well-known. Rocketry is a look at what has been an exception — an over-the-top life of a scientist extremely sure of his brilliance. However, he is thrown into jail, tortured and labelled as a traitor, and ends up fighting for more than 20 years to be compensated for all the humiliation he and his family is put through. The movie explores the details of his life in stark detail and sentiment, moving audiences when the curtain falls.
Nambi, the man
What works for Rocketry immensely is that Nambi Narayanan is both a myth and an enigma. Despite multiple investigations, court trials and redressals, we don’t really know the full picture — that’s the movie’s anchor to generating curiosity. R. B Sreekumar, former Gujarat Director-General of police and the man behind the investigation probe, was himself recently arrested on charges of forgery and criminal conspiracy.
The 1994 scandal involving Narayanan was nothing less than a James Bond film — confidential papers, geopolitics, and conspiracy theories. It had allegations of Narayanan being tricked by two Maldivian women and ISRO’s sale of India’s space programme secrets to Pakistan. The Supreme Court later cleared Narayanan of all charges, based on a CBI investigation. But irreversible damage was done, and Narayanan’s family ended up under severe psychological strains, especially his wife, Meena Nambi.
Incidentally, SRK’s character calls Nambi ‘Bond’ for his daredevil stunts to procure scientific equipment for India while the USSR collapses.
In Rocketry, the plight of the family is terrible to watch as it is shattered and forced to withdraw into a corner. Nambi is shown to be struggling with guilt and the massive burden of proving himself innocent.
Scientist with faults
Rocketry begins with a cocky Narayanan you are grudgingly impressed with. He has his faults — he doesn’t tell a co-worker that his son died so that he could continue to focus on his work. The film falters slightly in the first half with weak character development, and the slow pace might make you wish for more action. But the second half is gut-wrenching as the veneered, cocky scientist is reduced to rubble with torture. The scenes are crisp and powerful, even though we don’t see much of Sreekumar in the film.
Madhavan gives a stellar performance as Nambi, except for when he is shown as much younger. The Princeton University-educated scientist knows that he wants to make India great, and not get a job at NASA to earn in dollars. His making of Vikas, the rocket engine that has never failed his work in cryogenic, is definitely a humbling experience to learn from.
How to make a science film
What is appreciated is the way Rocketry’s script is handled. Complex physics, cryogenics, technical terms, and ISRO dynamics — the film isn’t a dumb show. The technicality holds the film together, it’s a story that shows how scientists really are. It is as eccentric as the greatest minds in India’s space journey, think Vikram Sarabhai, Abdul Kalam and Nambi Narayanan. It does not sacrifice essence for dramatic moments and because of that, Bollywood fans used to masala and exaggerated drama might be disappointed. The lack of noise is the film’s USP.
Further, it is a commendable directorial debut by R. Madhavan who shows how Nambi’s life would have turned out if he chose money over performance. The last few scenes are extremely powerful, and that is exactly when it hits you—it is not simply a film but a whole of a very real person that you just watched.
Rocketry is a story that needed telling and has been told well.
(Edited by Humra Laeeq)