Like most of us, filmmaker Prajesh Sen, the co-director of Rocketry: The Nambi Effect, first got to know about Nambi Narayanan, the former scientist and aerospace engineer of ISRO, after the news of the espionage case broke in 1994.
As a student, he was intrigued by the case and followed up on developments. The scientist was charged with leaking significant defence secrets to two alleged Maldivian Defence Intelligence Service officers. In 1996, he was acquitted of the charges.
After Prajesh began his journalism stint in the 2000s, he tried several times to interview Nambi, but the latter was not ready for it. However, they developed a good rapport, and finally, in 2010, Prajesh got an opportunity to interview Nambi. On that TV show, Nambi had an emotional breakdown while opening up to Prajesh.
“That incident stayed with me,” Prajesh recalls. It is clear that the incident stayed with Nambi too as the scientist chose Prajesh to co-author his biography, titled Ormakalude Bhramanapadham. “As part of the research, I travelled with Nambi sir to France and other places where he worked. I also interacted with people who were associated with him,” says Prajesh.
Prajesh’s adoration for the scientist did not stop there. In a quest to highlight Nambi’s contribution to science and technology, he made a 30-minute documentary, Nambi: The Scientist (2018) that was featured at the International Documentary and short film festival of Kerala.
Sharing an interesting anecdote about Nambi, the filmmaker says that the scientist had invested a portion of his earnings to travel the world and also owned a Super 8 Canon camera in the 1970s to capture memories of a lifetime. “I had the privilege to collect around 2000 rare photos of Nambi sir. I also retrieved video footage and digitalised it. It has been added to the documentary,” he shares.
Meanwhile, actor Madhavan was connected to making a biopic on Nambi. The film went on floors with another director, and the actor was entrusted with the writing responsibilities.
However, the Nambi connect with Prajesh was strong enough that when the first-announced director stepped out of the project, Madhavan reached out to the Captain director. “My joy knew no bounds when I got this opportunity. Working in Rocketry offered me an enriching learning experience that I will cherish forever,” says Prajesh, who emphasises that the film will mark a place in Indian history and remind the audience about the country’s forgotten past.
Rocketry explores Nambi’s journey from 1970 to 2014, and Prajesh mentions that the film encompasses Nambi’s significant phases—life at Princeton University, visiting France with 53 Indian scientists to develop the liquid engine, working in Russia for the transfer of technology to develop cryogenic-fuel-based engines, espionage case and the current stage of his life.
There was an extensive pre-production process for Rocketry, which began in 2017. After ironing out the details, and making it into a comprehensive look at the life and times of Nambi, the film went on floors in 2019 and was shot in places like Serbia, France, Georgia, Canada, the USA and Mumbai. “We spent one year for pre-production including casting and location recces. The task was to get the right actors and locations that would convincingly look like the 1970s. We took references for these from Nambi sir’s old photos and videos,” Prajesh says.
He also adds that they opted for countries like Serbia, France and Georgia, to recreate the vibe of the 1970s as some of the places there still host antique facades and old buildings. “With the release of Rocketry, the country will look up to Padma Bhushan Nambi for his immense contribution to science and not be merely known for the espionage case,” Prajesh says.
Rattling out the achievements of Nambi, Prajesh points out how the famed scientist designed two stages of the Vikas Engine that carried the PSLV rocket, attended classes with the late astronaut Neil Armstrong and also completed his master’s degree in chemical rocket propulsion in a record 10 months period, under the guidance of professor Luigi Crocco. “This film is a treasure trove of such interesting details from his life. Nambi sir is very happy with the way the film has come out. Rocketry will change his identity and he will be remembered and known as a legendary scientist,” Prajesh signs off.