Cast: Madhavan, Simran, Rajit Kapur, Misha Ghoshal
Cinematographer: Sirsha Ray
Editor: Bijith Bala
The story of former Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) scientist Nambi Narayanan is a thriller soaked in tragedy. Brilliant, arrogant, an adamant rule-breaker, Narayanan is a man Tom Cruise's Maverick from Top Gun might have admired.
He was the first from the organisation to get a full scholarship to an Ivy League American University – Princeton – where he pointed out a mistake in the textbook that was being taught. He used his earnestness and charm to get equipment worth 400 million pounds, for free from the head of Rolls Royce. He then ran a sort of covert space mission in France so that Indian scientists could learn from their French counterparts without the French realising they were parting with more knowledge than they should. At one point, Narayanan took equipment for rockets from the erstwhile USSR – in Rocketry: The Nambi Effect, this is staged like a scene from a James Bond movie, with the Americans giving chase and Narayanan, in superhero mode, staying one step ahead. Above all, Narayanan was a patriot who refused a NASA job with a fat paycheck.
For his unstinting service to science and the country, Narayanan was accused of espionage in 1994 and subjected to custodial torture by Intelligence Bureau (IB) officers. His wife went into shock and even his children were attacked. Eventually, the Supreme Court acquitted him and in 2019, he was awarded a Padma Bhushan. But the perpetrators of this treachery were never found. A man's life was horrifically derailed and to date, no one knows exactly why. Rocketry: the Nambi Effect hints that it might have been an international conspiracy, which explains the film's tag line — "Sometimes, a man wronged is a nation wronged."
It's a true story so astounding that no film writer could make it up. R. Madhavan became so obsessed with telling it that he not only took on the role of Narayanan, but also multi-tasked as director, writer, lyricist and producer. Rocketry: The Nambi Effect was shot in three languages, released in six and filmed in the United States of America, Scotland, France and Russia. Rocketry: The Nambi Effect is a Herculean passion project.
The ambitious juggling act has resulted in a film that is well-intentioned, moving in parts, but also clumsy — in content and craft — and overly simplistic. The film begins with the horror of Narayanan being arrested, but then transitions into an interview format with the scientist talking about his life's journey with none other than Shah Rukh Khan. Khan, who plays himself, is the sutradhaar. He asks questions to draw out key moments, delivers reams of exposition and also, at the end, on behalf of the country, asks Narayanan for forgiveness. The camera focuses on the teary faces of the crew shooting the interview, cuing us to get emotional. But we have no idea why a Bollywood star is doing a talk show with a scientist. This is not a film invested in details.
All that matters for Rocketry: The Nambi Effect is the big picture. The screenplay is keen to establish how pathbreaking Narayanan was so we skip from one accomplishment to the next in the first half, which functions mostly as a highlights reel. Characters around Narayanan keep commenting on his swashbuckling brilliance with lines like, "You must be the real deal, Nambi!", "You are an exceptional man, Nambi", "You are a dangerous man, Nambi" and "Badi teekhi cheez ho tum".
Undistracted by this fog of flattery, Narayanan is so single-minded that at one point, he hides a horrific truth from a colleague so that the colleague can finish the task assigned to him. Narayanan's decision feels inhumane, but it's also undeniably practical. This bit is the most interesting part of the first half, hinting at a complexity to a fascinating character.
While the film doesn't trust viewers to understand Narayanan's heroism unless it is repeated constantly, it has no hesitation in cheerfully tossing reams of scientific jargon at us without bothering to help us understand it. There is chatter about solid fuels, liquid fuels, cryogenic engines, a specific impulse of 461, stability margins and more. It quickly becomes eye-glazing. Though what we are seeing is jaw-dropping – imagine: a group of scientists learn French and work like part-time spies! – the telling remains episodic and flat. Did it really happen like this? The film begins with a disclaimer that events have been dramatized, but Madhavan has repeatedly said that everything we see is true.
Rocketry: The Nambi Effect springs to life in the second half when it returns to the espionage episode. Madhavan, as actor and director, steps up. The torture scenes are horrifying. Madhavan also stages a scene that echoes the iconic scene from Mashaal, in which Dilip Kumar rages and begs for help on a lonely street as Waheeda Rehman lays dying. Here, Narayanan and his wife are stranded in the pouring rain. As he desperately attempts to stop vehicles, the camera tilts up to the Indian flag, underscoring the irony of what the great patriot has been reduced to in his own country.
Madhavan has also said in interviews that making Rocketry: The Nambi Effect felt like a national duty. It's admirable that the film has brought Narayanan's many accomplishments into the spotlight, but the screenplay repeatedly underlines his patriotism and also leans pointedly into his religion. Our first visual of Narayanan is in the puja room at his home. At crucial moments, he prays. Narayanan is a true-blue Hindu patriot.
There is little room for ambiguity in Rocketry: The Nambi Effect. The film functions as a straight-up manifesto in defense of the man and his actions. By the end, Shah Rukh Khan addresses the audience directly and we see the real-life Narayanan. At this point, it's impossible to not be moved.
Rocketry: The Nambi Effect has a stellar team – the cinematography is by Sirsha Ray and the music has been composed by Sam CS, who recently wowed us in Suzhal. Rajit Kapur in a bad wig makes an appearance as Vikram Sarabhai. To counter this, please watch the terrific Ishwak Singh in Rocket Boys. And Simran does a solid job as Narayanan's long-suffering wife.