Rocketry: The Nambi Effect Is Bigger Than Its Standard Biopic Template

R. Madhavan’s retelling of scientist Nambi Narayanan’s life is an inadvertent reminder that a government that abuses its power can reduce a hero to a victim
Rocketry: The Nambi Effect Is Bigger Than Its Standard Biopic Template

Director: Madhavan
Writer: Madhavan
Cast: Madhavan, Simran, Rajit Kapur, Misha Ghoshal
Cinematographer: Sirsha Ray
Editor: Bijith Bala

Rocketry: The Nambi Effect tells the story of a scientist reduced to the stature of a survivor. The crashing-down-to-earth metaphor is evident in the opening shot of the film. The camera tracks in from the serenity of outer space, puncturing the earth's atmosphere, breaking through a stormy sky, before finally settling on a quiet street in Kerala. The unbroken take then proceeds to snake into a family home. It's a chatty evening – banter between mother and daughter, son and father – until it's not. All the energy in the house soon dissipates. 

The sky-to-dirt journey aside, this shot also reflects the narrative anatomy of Rocketry. For more than two-thirds of its 155-minute running time, Rocketry resides in the clouds and beyond. It orbits the limitlessness of its protagonist's talent. We see the pride of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), scientist Nambi Narayanan (R. Madhavan) in Princeton, America's National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Scotland, France, Russia. All he's doing is learning, accomplishing, advancing, hustling, moving, winning. He has a family, but he only ever mentions them to fend off attention from the opposite sex. Except for a fleeting scene with a young wife, the film distances itself from that dimension of his life. It's almost as though he doesn't have the time to be human. 

The final third, however, unfurls like an Indian horror story. The scientist is (wrongly) charged with espionage; he is treated as a national traitor. The camera is forced to enter that home after flirting with the stars. The family, which was missing from most of the film, becomes the sobering core of a high-pitched police procedural. The tonal change is designed to feel like the thwarting of progress; a fairytale morphs into a broken cautionary tale. Which is to say: We've seen that gimmicky Google-Earth-style opening shot in several movies over the years, but Rocketry uses it as a visual prophecy. The context is fitting. 

There are other instances of thoughtful filmmaking that smoothen this strange marriage between run-of-the-mill biopic and impassioned plea for justice. For instance, instead of a lazy voiceover, the exposition is done by a television interview between Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan and an aged Nambi Narayanan. (In the Tamil version of Rocketry, Suriya is the interviewer.) Despite its awkward execution, the interview works on two levels. One, as a narrative device, it allows the film to be divided into life chapters. It frees the script from the obligation of structural continuity between 1969 and 1994. Every chapter then serves as its own short film – without the need for tangible transitions.

The Princeton portion is defined by a young Narayanan's hunger and charm. To learn from the best, he hustles his way into a reputed professor's home as a caretaker. The Scotland portion is perhaps the weakest — it is defined by a single (and poorly-worded) dinner chat in which a wealthy British industrialist repeatedly expresses his imperialist guilt for the Partition. The France portion is defined by Narayanan's vision and ruthlessness as a leader. We see him stop at nothing to 'borrow' Europe's knowledge about liquid propellant fuels. The supporting cast – both Indian (particularly Sam Mohan as Unni) and international – shine in these French segments. The Russia portion is defined by Narayanan's diplomatic verve and a campy Argo-like escape in the final hours of the erstwhile Soviet Union. The India portion is defined by Narayanan's resilience as a prisoner and victim. The fracture of his private life is filmed with disorienting clarity. At one point, even the aspect ratio changes during the torture sequences.

At the conclusion of every chapter, the Bollywood superstar – not unlike a Satyamev Jayate host – prompts the old man to narrate the next. To Madhavan's credit as both actor and first-time director, he never lets his physical transformations hijack the essence of a phase. A restlessness runs through his performance, which keeps the character wedded to country and career. Madhavan's writing, too, manages to walk the thin line between scientific jargon and emotional accessibility. A lot of the dialogue is rooted in the evolution of rocket technology, but as a viewer, one rarely feels excluded or spoken down to for the sake of authenticity. I especially liked how the film turns something as uncinematic and technical as an engine test – not a launch, not a mission – into a rousing payoff moment. 

Secondly, and more importantly, the interview format serves as a source of great subtext. The identity of this superstar is integral to the Hindi version of Rocketry. Shah Rukh Khan plays himself here and one can't help but notice why. Nambi Narayanan, as a narrative, is composed of two of Khan's finest mid-career roles: Swades and Chak De! India. As a scientist, Narayanan exudes the muted patriotism of Swades – he rejects a lucrative NASA offer in favour of watering his home turf and bargaining his way to genius. As a person, Nambi strives for the redemption at the heart of Chak De! India – he is disgraced at the peak of his career, stigmatised by society and condemned in the court of public opinion. So when Khan teases feelings out of the old man, the illusion is that of one experienced man empathising with the other. The investment in his life looks genuine. There's an added layer of poignance, even as the film overcooks the reaction shots in the interview. 

The difference, though, is that Narayanan's journey isn't as absolute as Hindi film fiction. It's widely known that he was cleared of all charges, but he never quite got that Chak De! ending. Nobody else was charged; the conspiracy remained unsolved. In the real world, it's seldom as lyrical as coaching a team to World Cup glory and exorcising all demons. Nambi Narayanan spent 25 years rebuilding, fighting for financial compensation and restoring his reputation. This is where Rocketry raises some interesting questions about a staple Bollywood emotion: deshbhakti (patriotism). There's a scene where six ageing ISRO scientists, sitting in a rickety old lab, convey that the exodus of India's best brains is understandable. At home, the mindspace is occupied by too many earthly worries to aim for the stars. I like that the film offers more of a diagnosis than a monologue-riddled cure. Much of it is down to the reality of Narayanan's story, but Rocketry could have easily infused it with a flimsy cocktail of hope and nationalism. Instead, the ruefulness stays. The caution endures. There are no ready answers.

The craft is far from sophisticated towards the end. It literally spells out this message, turning the protagonist into more of a sappy showpiece. All nuance is abandoned. Regardless, I came out with a lump in my throat. Perhaps this reaction has less to do with the film itself – and everything to do with its timing. In a different India, I might not have felt the same. But in this age of press censorship and police brutality, it's oddly stirring to see the story of a great Indian mind being derailed, harassed and wrongfully accused of a crime. His rise and fall feel more immediate. The line, "A nation can only be great if it respects the people who make it great" can easily translate to "A nation can only be democratic if it respects the people who hold it accountable". I'm also aware that this is likely not the intent of Rocketry: The Nambi Effect, given that it features footage of the current administration. As much as I'd like to believe otherwise, the timing is inadvertent. The symbolism is accidental. But you know what they say: Cinema is the conscience of a country. And stories are a gateway to the soul of its people. 

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