At the Cannes Film Festival 2022, for the premiere of his film Rocketry: The Nambi Effect, Madhavan talks about what drew him to this biopic on the life of Nambi Narayanan, a former Indian Space Research Organization scientist, why he agreed to direct the film and shooting it in three languages simultaneously:
I was looking at the trailer of Rocketry: The Nambi Effect and I was just thinking what a herculean labor of love this film is for you. Not just act, but to produce, to write. You said in an interview with Variety: I haven't even directed a film on an iPhone before, and here I am. What is your headspace right now?
In all honesty, if I were to throw away this this mask of bravado that I have, I would probably cry. Being at Cannes for our world premiere is not something that our wider and wildest imagination had conceived of. The story started when I heard the story of a spy who was a caught red-handed, but apparently turned out to be innocent because he had had an affair with a Maldivian woman. I thought of it as a James Bond-ish story that was based on real events so I wanted to meet Mr Nambi. What happened after that was a life-transforming moment. It just swallowed me up. Most actors say that the subject of a film just reaches out and grabs them and they know that it's the right film to do at that point of time in their lives. I think this is one of those. I met Mr. Nambi at 7 PM in Trivandrum and I was sure that I wasn't seeing the whole picture. He was so angry that people called him a traitor 20 years ago. He was still holding on to that, he was telling me he could prove that he was innocent.
When I started the film, the verdict hadn't yet come out and he hadn't yet been given the Padma Bhushan, he hadn't been exonerated or compensated. They said he was innocent, but there was no proof of that. You could feel his angst. I took six months to write this story and then I went to meet him again to get the story approved. He said, 'You've got most of it right but this bit about the stability theorem is not right because I was in Princeton, New Jersey, when I worked on it.' I said, 'When were you in Princeton? What is Princeton?' And he said: I was the first Ivy League student from India. I said, 'When were you planning to tell me that?' And he started telling me things about his story that nobody knew. The film went from this case about how a man was wrongly arrested to just this swell of emotion in me. I wailed. How did we not know about this guy? It almost feels like a national disservice not to know about Namibian Island. So it started as this overwhelming desire to tell this man's story. Why are Indians like this? Why can't we believe that a good boy exists? He was one of those guys in class who did all his homework, his shoes would be polished, he'd be wearing glasses, shirt tucked in, and you'd want to slap him because you know you couldn't be that good and not have a flaw. That's what got to me.
Direction was thrust upon me at the last minute. I had a breakdown. I had a choice: to drop the film, forget about the money that we spent on it, or to direct it. Mr. Nambi and my investors were very keen on the latter. He said he'd spoken to many people, but I understood the science because I studied BSc Electronics. I'm vastly experienced with engineering, I've done all sorts of projects and engineering. My father's an engineer. At the end of the day, the choice was: Shall we jump into it? Or make the more sensible choice and wait to get a proper director. My answer was: We were never going to get a proper director because nobody could understand rocket science the way it's supposed to be. It was a challenge. So I jumped into it. I called a friend and he told me, 'One shot at a time.' We did every scene in in three languages. All my actors speak Hindi, Tamil and English.
You'd said: It's not a commercial venture for any of us, it's more a national duty. I get the sentiment but in storytelling, that can sometimes weigh down the narrative. How did you, as a director and a storyteller, ensure that it was about the story and not the larger vision behind it?
I didn't want to direct it, so I wasn't even looking at it in all the ways that you're saying. To be honest, I don't know what it means to have a vision weighing down a film because I'm an actor. I don't hear these kinds of lines when I come to set. Tell me what my character is and what time packup is, and I'm done. But the one thing that motivated me, that actually made me a little upset, enough to go and try and prove something, were the people taking care of my interests and so trying to make it a commercial venture. They were saying: Why do you want to do it in three languages? Do it in Tamil. Why do you want to do also it in Hindi and English? And so I'm thinking, 'Why is my heart asking me to do it in English?' Because this man's achievement is much more accepted and glorified in France. He worked in that country and in a lot of English-speaking places including ISRO. So I could justify making the film in English, but I was also making them speak in Tamil and Hindi — the most common language. It's my money, so I just thought we should do it.
But you also dubbed it?
Actually, we've done something crazy. There is so much of English in the Hindi version because a large part of the film is set in Scotland and then France, in Russia. So we have an English version and a Hindi version, in which all of this is dubbed. We have five dubbed languages and three original languages. We said: In for a penny, in for a pound.
Mr. Nambi was on your set. He was involved with the script. Given that, how do you, as a director, take creative liberties if you have to? How do you improvise or have dramatic flourishes while he's watching?
He wasn't really on set. He was just there to help us with the scientific aspects, to make sure we got the rocketry aspects right. My big challenge as a writer was: How do you explain rocket science? What he's done has to be awe-inspiring for you to understand why it is so unjust that he had to go through what he did. So I had to write it in such a way that by the time the first half ended, everybody in the hall thinks they know enough about rocketry. To do this, I had to have him on set and ask things like: Am I saying something wrong if I break it down in layman's terms? In most biopics, you have to take a few cinematic liberties to make the material palatable. I can promise you that in this film, I had to take out stuff to make it believable. Whatever you have seen so far in the trailer is all true. There are no liberties being taken. I'm combined two different individuals into one character – that's the kind of liberty I had to take as a writer. But the truth is stranger than fiction and much more dramatic and impactful.
You could see this man's eyes, the hurt in them and the kind of cruelty we've inflicted upon him. If you look at all the media and all the news that you get about India, you wonder how it's even surviving and being held together. But then you realize that deep inside it's these pillars, these people with that integrity that are the reason.
Tell me about the logistics of three languages. Do you do each scene in three languages? What does that do to the spontaneity of the actors?
Because it's a biopic, I just wanted to make sure that the ideas were conveyed, so there wasn't a lot of spontaneity in terms of how the characters were played. The first thing that we did in terms of logistics was to write the script in all the three languages and see if it had the same impact. Secondly, the look of a rocket scientist is very different from any other scientist and I couldn't find established actors who could pull it off in all three languages. So I had all newcomers. I had a casting team that found these people who could speak English, Hindi and Tamil equally fluently, and these people were also scientifically inclined. We did hundreds of those days of rehearsals.
So you workshopped it a lot?
Yeah, everybody was very keen. I was too, as a director. I needed the workshop myself. I just wanted to know if I could capture the truth of what these guys were trying to say. As an actor, I knew a lot of tricks that I could tell them. So if there was an emotional scene, I would just tell them: Don't worry about it, just stay in your room till I call you. Go think about the girlfriend who dumped you right now. That would work. We would plan our daily shoot from seven in the morning till six in the evening. I don't think we ever reached six in the evening – we packed up at 2 PM or 3 PM every day because we all rehearsed so much, we knew exactly what we had to do.
What you're saying is so overwhelming and there is so much money involved. Did you ever have a moment of: What was I thinking?
All the time. But one look at Mr Nambi makes it all worth it. I didn't make any money during COVID, and even in the two years before COVID because I was doing this film. I took on OTT work to keep the fires burning, but apart from that, I haven't done any films. My last one was Vikram Vedha. My wife was a great support in terms of strength. She said: I've never seen you so happy. You're exhausted, you're pissed off, you're tired, but you're sleeping with a smile. I'll trade all the money in the world for that.