It is 9 pm and actor Madhavan has had interviews lined up all day since he landed in Chennai, but he is thrilled to talk about the vision behind his film Rocketry: The Nambi Effect coming to life. From the Cannes Film Festival and a 15-day US tour including a Times Square premiere of the film’s trailer, to media interactions and events in south Indian states, the popular actor has left no stone unturned to promote Rocketry, which marks his directorial debut. In addition to direction, Madhavan is also on board as the writer, producer and lead actor in this biopic of former rocket scientist at the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) Nambi Narayanan, who was falsely accused of espionage and arrested in 1994. The film is slated for release in theatres on July 1.
In an interview with TNM, Madhavan says, “After playing rugged characters in Vikram Vedha and similar films, I came across the 1994 ISRO spy case and it sounded like a story that would fit into a James Bondesque space. Even after over 20 years, Nambi sir was still angry with how horrible the case was, and I got caught up with it too. But after spending seven months writing the script when I went back to him, Nambi sir pointed out quite casually that there was a technical error and that he went to Princeton. At that point, I realised that the script had to be reworked, it had to focus on his journey as a scientist, which we had initially not included.”
Soon enough, the scope of the story went beyond its elevator pitch, and the writer-director went on to explore Nambi Narayanan’s achievements, which include being one of the first Indian Ivy League students, receiving $500 million worth of equipment, and learning to build the liquid fuel engine in France. “People don’t know many things about him, like the fact that he is a Tamilian or what qualified him for the Padma Bhushan or his contribution to space research,” Madhavan points out.
The trailer features Madhavan as Nambi in different time periods in his life. Many videos from the film have created a buzz among fans. Madhavan is also teaming up with actor Simran (who plays Nambi’s wife in the film) after 20 years. The duo were last seen together in the Mani Ratnam directorial Kannathil Muthamittal. “We have tried to shed light on different sides of his personality and not just the infamous case. As for the looks, we have not used any prosthetics,” says Madhavan.
Rocketry was originally shot in Tamil, English and Hindi, and dubbed into five different languages. The supporting cast consists of Rajit Kapur, Ravi Raghavendra, Misha Ghoshal, Karthik Kumar, Gulshan Grover, Dinesh Prabhakar and Mohan Raman, among others. “We picked actors who could speak in all three languages so that the shooting could be done. As for the reason behind releasing it in so many languages, I believe that some films work better in regional languages while some have better scope as pan-Indian releases, and they need to be promoted accordingly,” the 52-year-old actor says.
The cast also includes Phyllis Logan, Vincent Riotta and Ron Donachie. Madhavan adds, “The shoot took place in Canada, Georgia, Serbia, France and India, and we had wrapped it up before the pandemic but COVID lockdowns did cause delays in the release and promotions. We looked at OTT options, but every time we were close to finalising something we felt the movie was made to be experienced in the theatre.”
Behind-the-scenes images of actor Madhavan from the sets of Rocketry; The Nambi Effect. Source: Done Media
In 1994, Nambi and another fellow scientist, D Sasikumaran, were accused of leaking important defence secrets to alleged Maldivian intelligence officers Mariam Rasheed and Fauzia Hassan who were accused of having links with Pakistan. Nambi was arrested and spent 50 days in jail. He was asked to make false accusations and when he denied to comply, he was tortured untill he collapsed and had to be hospitalised. The controversy eventually led to the resignation of then Kerala Chief Minister K Karunakaran. Nambi’s autobiography titled Ormakalude Bhramanapadham was released in October 2017.
Nambi then published Ready To Fire, co-written with Arun Ram, which deconstructs the ‘ISRO spy scandal’. The scientist discusses how he was harassed and tortured by intelligence officials during the interrogation in the case, and also reflects on how large organisations like ISRO are not devoid of internal politics and squabbles.
When asked if Rocketry delves deeper into the lapses in the criminal justice system and whether it was discussed during his meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi last April, Madhavan states, “No, the interrogation is a part of the story so we are hoping it will make people think about unsung heroes and the real acts of patriotism that never come to light. Our meeting with the PM was very brief so we couldn’t discuss the themes the film touches upon at length.”
The Vikram Vedha actor took on the mantle of director after the filmmaker who was previously attached with Rocketry had to drop out due to scheduling conflicts at the eleventh hour. “Finding another director who understood the technicalities involved seemed like an impossible task. During interviews, some journalists quoted from my earlier interviews where I had said that I would never direct a film. With Rocketry, I had no other option but to either turn director or let go of the project,” he says.
Madhavan says that he did not find it difficult to execute his vision as he had help from Nambi. “Nambi sir was there on the sets to guide us with the technical aspects,” the actor adds.
Rocketry is the latest addition to the long list of patriotic films to have hit the big screens in recent times such as Major, Shershaah, Sardar Udham, Satyamev Jayate and Bell Bottom, among others. How did the makers ensure that they don’t end up taking a jingoistic tone? “We were particular about using only factual information. In fact, we removed some information to ensure that the film is not overloaded with facts,” the actor explains.
Noting that separating his role as a director, producer and actor was indeed strenuous, Madhavan shares that he does not see himself directing a film in the near future. He has the film Dhokha and web series The Railway Man in the pipeline, but shares that he cannot wait to take a much-needed break after Rocketry releases.