At one point in Rocketry: The Nambi Effect, we see Madhavan’s Nambi Narayanan drive a snow sled in Russia as he tries to smuggle off rocket components just as the Americans come to confiscate them. There are snow-capped mountains, an almost femme fatale-type Russian, and a rocket scientist who can handle his champagne. Rocketry feels like it could be our very own The-World-is-Not-Enough-meets-A-Beautiful-Mind. However, that is not the story Madhavan is going for.
It is interesting that Madhavan, who makes his directorial debut with Rocketry, begins proceedings with actor Suriya, playing himself, interviewing Nambi in a live show. The premise isn’t new, but we already see glimpses into Madhavan’s directorial style which prefers elevated melodrama, especially among peripheral characters. There is a gradual buildup to the crescendo, and we are introduced to Nambi’s family. This is intercut (editor Bijith Bala employs a smart editing style in the film) by the country waking up to the news of Nambi’s alleged treachery.
What happened to Nambi was the primitive form of ‘Cancel Culture’ where an allegation was enough to tarnish the image of a man who gave everything to his country. However, Madhavan doesn’t just want to concentrate on the humiliation suffered by Nambi and his family at the hands of the power structures and people in the country. He wants to show us the man behind the flowing white beard. The narration moves back and forth to reintroduce us to the life and times of Nambi Narayanan, a stubborn rocket scientist, whose only aim in life was to put Indian rocket science on the global map.
Starting from the times of Vikram Sarabhai, we see Nambi’s scientific exploits, his sojourns in Europe and the USA, his rejection of the highly lucrative NASA offer, and his run-ins with red-tapism in India when it came to funding science. While these portions help us warm up to the enterprising life of Nambi Narayanan, it bares open up a few problems in the writing. For one, there is a striking dissonance in the Tamil dialogues, and it doesn’t feel organic.
Also, these portions, which are set in the 70s, have humour that might have been best left in that era. However, points to Madhavan and the team for not trying to dumb down rocket science to make it appealing. Most of these scientific conversations that Nambi Narayanan has with his colleagues and friends aren’t something all of us would understand because it is indeed… rocket science. But the writing around these portions keeps us invested in the success of these missions and not about what the mission is all about. All we know is Nambi and co. are doing it for India, and this patriotism pulls us through.
Although these sequences explore international espionage, systemic corruption, and vanquished dreams, Rocketry truly becomes effective when it focuses on what Nambi Narayanan, his wife Meena (a terrific Simran), children Geeta (Misha Ghoshal) and Shankar (Shyam Renganathan), and son-in-law Arunan (Muralidharan) go through, after the allegations surface. For instance, right after repeated bouts of torture, there is a monologue by Nambi. It is Madhavan’s finest onscreen performance.
Even in his acceptance of defeat, there is a sense of defiance. Even in that debilitating humiliation, Madhavan exudes the confidence of an honest man. Standing strong with him is Simran, who once again proves why she is a consummate performer. Her guttural cries will be ringing in our ears long after the credits roll. The rest, especially Nambi’s team — Param (Rajeev Ravindranath), Sartaj (Bhawsheel), and Unni (Sam Mohan) — are perfect foils. The actor in Madhavan, in fact, comfortably outshines the director in him. While some of the facets of his directorial approach are commendable—like the time of Nambi Narayanan’s arrival on screen—there are other places that scream for different choices.
Most biopics made in Indian cinema, especially those about living people, border on being hagiographies. Nambi Narayanan’s story makes for a cautionary yet fascinating tale of how a bonafide national treasure got unceremoniously discarded for a long time. It speaks of how even during the darkest times, trust in the goodness of people and the judiciary helps. It delves deep into how rumours and mob mentality easily ruin reputations. It also doesn’t shy away from raining complaints about his parent organisation, ISRO, and even nudges us into the idea of who was behind this treachery. It isn’t tough to understand why Rocketry: The Nambi Effect had to be told this way.
Film: Rocketry: The Nambi Effect
Cast: Madhavan, Simran, Rajeev Ravindranath, Sam Mohan