Cast: Madhavan, Simran, Rajit Kapur, Misha Ghoshal, Suriya
How would a person – who was falsely implicated in a police case, and has then been acquitted of all charges – clear their image in public consensus? A press meet? A TV headline? A lengthy profile in a magazine? I'm ready to argue that the most convincing answer to this is a theatrical film release headlined by a well-known star, released in multiple languages. Former ISRO scientist Padma Bhushan Nambi Narayanan gets a grand platform to do the same, thanks to actor R. Madhavan, now also writer-director.
This directorial debut begins with a familiar visual of the camera swooping down onto our planet from outer space, ending in a humble earthly household. One might think this is to indicate the insignificance of our kind in the larger scheme of things, but no, what makes this interesting is the choice of playing Suprabatham over this imagery of the dawn of a new day. It's an unabashedly Indian, spiritual element to begin a story of scientists reaching for the stars.
This is probably the only unique directorial flourish in the film. From this point, it's mostly a string of Indian biopic devices that we're all too familiar with. The narration originates from a talk-show interview, there are bite-sized cutaways to flash-forwards, a good-looking male titular character invites female attraction wherever he goes, the national flag is witness to emotional events, etc. Some of these make sense within this film, but this tendency to go for familiarity is the very force that keeps dragging down biopics from our country. We have stories about both celebrated and unsung heroes from different walks of life, but still want to fit them all into a familiar template.
The one familiar device that I like is the change in aspect ratio when Nambi Narayanan is "framed". Quite on-the-nose I should say, but it's a commendable extra step to portray a character who is being cornered. The flash-forwards may feel quite ornamental, but they do add some necessary energy to an otherwise linear narrative.
The actor in Madhavan covers up a lot of his generic directorial choices. His wide-eyed and assuredly playful dialogue delivery sells quite a bit of the tiringly heavy expository content in the first half. (At the same time I'm glad that the film doesn't embarrass itself in making the science accessible with dumbed-down examples) He works well within his own limitations and doesn't go overboard at any point. The ensemble that has a lot of foreign actors and long stretches of English/foreign dialogue, could've remained untouched – the Tamil dubbing gets distractingly comical at a few places. Simran delivers a haunting act as Nambi's psychologically affected wife – it's a both composed and loud performance, and the scene of the character's shift is going to stay in memory. I'd also like to note how the charming Malayalam actor Dinesh Prabhakar becoming Tamil cinema's resident corrupt cop isn't looking good.
The one instance of a human mistake committed by Nambi, where he puts mission above emotion, is acted well by all involved, especially Sam Mohan as Unni, the friend to who Nambi lies. I wish this grave error of his would've been reflected in his character after the incident, but Rocketry: The Nambi Effect doesn't want to go as deep as that. It's never interested in micro emotions.
Speaking of micro details, while ISRO is noted to not have had an official logo until 2002, the film uses the current logo in a sequence set in France in the early '70s. Barely a blotch on the narrative, but certainly a distraction that yanked me out for a moment. The Indian space biopic genre is ridden with such discrepancies, including the recent Mission Mangal that had absurdly designed technical tactics, and this year's Rocket Boys TV series that indulged in questionable cinematic changes to real-life characters. I'll wait for the jury to be out on this film's science, but yes, our space scientists do deserve better research.
Again, this medium is the best platform one could provide for a wronged stalwart of the nation to clear their name. There's obviously constant idolising within the film, but even the existence of this film in our world would be of immense help in cleansing a lot of the past. The one-liners of the story that would float around in various film-watching avenues would all state that this is the story of a man who reclaimed his innocence, thus rewriting the narrative about him in public memory. I'm of the belief that the widespread effect of the medium could even best the third-highest civilian award of our nation – Padma Bhushan.
So Madhavan's intentions are well in place, and he's pretty effective in generating melodrama out of the story. However, I'd say that he dials it a little too far for today's sensibilities. While the film charts Nambi Narayanan's academic and professional journey with a lot of reverence and generously paced detailing, the moment it gets to the event that changed his life, it shifts focus on deriving melodrama out of the episode than explaining the how-s and why-s of it. While the makers can get the benefit of the doubt citing that the case itself hasn't gotten clarity in real life, as to who exactly did the framing and why, the imbalance is very apparent in the film.
I still find it puzzling how our filmmakers, even with such heavily poignant true stories, want to rely on a swelling background score to gain empathy from the audience. They somehow distance us further by telling us how to feel, every step of the way. It's in the loud music, the embarrassingly acted reaction shots to a real-life personality's journey. This biopic is no exception. The abuse faced by the man at the hands of investigative officials has no reason to be backed by that heavy score because there's enough sympathy built for the character by that point (we're well into the second half). That's how I'd like to confirm that these biopics want to respect the subject/idol more than they want to respect the audience.