Cast: Madhavan, Simran, Rajit Kapur, Misha Ghoshal, Suriya
It's better to split Madhavan's first directorial into two different films—Rocketry and The Nambi Effect. One of these is a clunky and flat report card of a man's life achievements. The other is an intimate and intense human drama about the same man holding onto a few scraps of sanity in a crazy, unfair world.
The first half of the film is as much the story of India's rocketry experiments with a special emphasis on how Nambi Narayanan played a part in making India a serious contender in space. As someone who grew up in Kerala, this is the part that was new to me. Who was Nambi Narayanan? What did he do at Princeton? Where did our rocket scientists get their expertise? How did our country participate in space missions with our limited resources? And why did Nambi Narayanan learn how to make omelets?
These are the vital questions the first half answers as we learn a lot about a genius scientist who is part James Bond, part Albert Einstein and part Ambi from Anniyan. I watched the Tamil version and this is also where you'll find large chunks set almost entirely outside the country. We get a long stretch where he helps his mentor by doing odd jobs and caring for his wife. The action shifts to France and then to Russia but here again, you find the same problem you always do when the scene's full of foreign actors. The dubbing feels off and it's impossible to remain invested when we have dozens of white people speaking and cracking jokes in Tamil. The Russians feel like the caricatures you'd see in old Indiana Jones movies and there's a lifelessness to scenes set abroad that never lets you invest in the grand story it's trying to tell.
This is where you see the limitations of Madhavan as a craftsman. Exciting scenes which involve a chase on snow and elaborate experiments to test rocket engines feel basic like we're watching a show on Discovery Kids. Even the way the first half unfurls feels like a chat you'd have with a man at an airport where he goes on describing his list of achievements. Some of these are surprising like how he had to smuggle an engine out of a crumbling USSR. The others, like the time he corrects a textbook in Princeton—take too much time to arrive at a predictable punchline.
On one hand, you get loads of exposition explaining even the most basic things that are happening on a screenplay level, and on the other, there's so much jargon about rocket fuels and cryogenics that you're forced to watch the film with a dozen Wikipedia tabs open. It never quite strikes the balance between science and sentiment and there's also a lot of name-dropping that goes on to get you to see how big a deal this man was.
But it's "The Nambi Effect" part of the film I was surprisingly moved by. Madhavan is better at shooting drama than scale and the film really comes into its own when it's stripped off the largeness, to give us a tragically ironic story of India and its bone-crunching system. From the portrait of a cocky and arrogant man, we see a giant get reduced to an ant when an espionage case is filed against him. In one of Madhavan's best performances, you need to see him in a scene where he struggles to walk out of his holding cell, with stained pants and bloodshot eyes. He's bruised and broken from the outside but there's a strength he emits that somehow gets you to see the power of the truth only he believes in. I've never seen Madhavan exude such a potent mix of vulnerability and grit, even without the bells and whistles of the first half.
I also admire several decisions of Madhavan the screenwriter. Given how familiar this case is to a lot of Keralites, I expected the case to play like a visual document covering a series of familiar events. But Madhavan, the writer, does something really clever by giving two other characters a lot of importance along with Nambi Narayanan. One of these is a man named Unni, who adds several layers to our understanding of Nambi. Practical to a fault, you see shades of a megalomaniac in the way he understands nothing about family, only for us to see a totally different side to it much later.
On the other side is an Indian origin Nasa scientist named Amaldev. This characterisation helps you draw a parallel between a patriot like Nambi and a man with lesser talent living in a "fairer" country. And by juxtaposing Nambi with Amaldev's Cadillac and his entourage, the film underscores the tragedy of a man who was defeated by the same country he helped build, one dream at a time.
It is certainly a film I would recommend to two types of people—the first is obviously the folks who love science and who know a thing or two about ISRO's missions and how special they are. I'd urge them to watch it and then call me back to at least explain the difference between solid, liquid, and cryogenic engines and what they actually learned when they were in France.
The second lot is a set of people who've never heard of Nambi Narayanan. What happened to him is a travesty and it spells out how ridiculously easy it is for a person to lose everything for no reason. Call it office politics or personal vendetta—in Nambi's own words—no one should have to go through what he did.