If the film still strikes a chord somewhere despite all the bungling, it is because you know someone lived through this story. That alone makes it worth a watch.

Madhavan in Rocketry: The Nambi EffectScreengrab
Flix Review Friday, July 01, 2022 - 15:43
Worth a watch

The infamous spy case foisted on ISRO’s star aerospace engineer Nambi Narayanan is a blot on the country’s history. Decades have passed since Nambi was arrested out of the blue, tortured, and declared a traitor for selling ‘rocket’ secrets to Pakistan. But the whys and hows of the case are still murky. Ahead of watching Rocketry: The Nambi Effect, directed by Madhavan who also plays the lead role, I read about the case once again to refresh my memory. How could a man who had been an integral part of Indian space science be branded so easily as a criminal? This is an intriguing and frightening real life story; a tale of incredible determination, hard work, deceit, betrayal and conspiracy that also involves international and local politics.

To weave this into a cogent narrative while also making the science simple enough for the audience to grasp is a big ask. I was hoping Rocketry would do better than 2019’s Mission Mangal in which Vidya Balan sets up a stove and fries poori inside ISRO to demonstrate a scientific principle. The film begins with the heavens above and the earth below, Vedic chants in the background. It is difficult to sit through it without being reminded of Madhavan’s disastrous claim that ISRO scientists had used the ancient geocentric panchangam for their Mars mission, and that Indians already knew everything that was to be known about space a thousand years ago. We meet Nambi’s family, and his daughter casually remarks that she’s unsure if her husband – who also works at ISRO – is a scientist or astrologer because he’s always holding on to the panchangam in bed.

My heart, which was already sinking, reached my feet at this point. Was the whole movie going to be on WhatsApp University territory? To my relief, it does take off. Somewhat.

It is 1994 and Nambi is arrested. His family is attacked and shamed. Cut to the present when he’s on a talk show with actor Suriya (who appears as himself). The employees at the studio are unimpressed. They make disparaging comments on the old man – they’re sure he’s going to be boring. We know why they’re there. It is for the reaction shots that will come later. When they look suitably awed by what Nambi has revealed. The actors aren’t great and the direction is obvious but the story itself is so powerful that you are moved despite these flaws.

Madhavan is a better actor than a director. Especially as the elderly Nambi, he comes very close to the actual man in his body language and speech. The film takes us through the young Nambi’s ambition, his desire to put India on the map in space research and explorations. For the sake of cinematic convenience, everybody at ISRO speaks Tamil, including pioneering scientist Vikram Sarabhai (Ravi Raghavendra). There is a young Kalam too. While many science fiction films show scientists as people with mismanaged hair pouring colourful, bubbling liquids into test tubes, in reality, doing good science is also about dealing with budgetary constraints and dealing with bureaucracy.

The Indian talent for jugaad was born out of that necessity, and Rocketry gives us an unconventional man who always thought big. The first half of the film establishes Nambi’s rise which corresponds with India’s fledgling attempts to make a mark in the field. For a layperson though, it is unclear why India’s stake in the race is important beyond a patriotism project. Take the interval block when Nambi and his team pull off a remarkable success – the significance of the moment is lost on a viewer who doesn’t already understand it. Perhaps out of an eagerness to not talk down to the audience (like frying pooris), Rocketry doesn’t nearly explain enough. There is an omelette scene which is close to the poori one, but it still demands a leap of imagination and some prior knowledge for you to get what our leading man is so excited about.

Simran as Nambi’s wife Meena delivers a brilliant performance. It is only in the second half that she gets to sink her teeth into the role, but it’s her performance that drives home the tragic consequences that the false case had on the concerned people. As the stricken Meena who is unable to come to terms with what has happened, Simran is riveting in the few scenes that she is given.

The supporting cast, though, leaves much to be desired. Barring Madhavan, Simran and Karthik Kumar (who plays a CBI officer), the rest of the performances are shaky. There are some great anecdotes from Nambi’s life (like the linguistic trick he pulled on the French with his team) that pepper the film, and a better cast would have greatly helped Rocketry. For some reason, the white women are always hitting on Nambi while he modestly tells them that he has a wife; I suppose this is to underline the irony of the allegation that he was involved in a ‘honey trap’ later, but it is jarring when the few women characters in the film have nothing better to do. There are no songs, and Sam CS’s music alternates between a cheery comic track to a rousing background score.

If you haven’t already done your homework and read about the case before watching the film, chances are that you will find it difficult to piece together what exactly happened. Madhavan hints at a conspiracy and the involvement of a foreign hand all through the film – from Sarabhai’s death to who dragged Nambi’s name into the case – but there isn’t any new insight that you gain from it. The politics within the different factions of the Congress in Kerala was another big reason for Nambi’s arrest, but perhaps to avoid political controversies, the film skims past it.

Rocketry is meant as a tribute to Nambi, and the final sequence with Suriya is testament to that. Madhavan throws subtlety to the wind and goes all out to make it up to Nambi. The intention is noble, but the scene veers towards the theatrical. In contrast, the scene with Nambi and Meena in the rain with the Indian flag in focus has no dialogues – but it makes the point powerfully.

Madhavan’s howler with the panchangam does feature in the film – it’s blurred and beeped out but you know what it is. The actor-director has shot himself in the foot with this costly slip-up, and as a viewer, you can’t help but doubt his grip on the story that he has chosen to tell. This is one instance where the subject is, indeed, rocket science, and the lack of a scientific temper in the making hurts the film.

Nambi deserved a better take-off than this. If the film still strikes a chord somewhere despite all the bungling, it is because you know someone lived through this story. That alone makes it worth a watch.

Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the film. Neither TNM nor any of its reviewers have any sort of business relationship with the film's producers or any other members of its cast and crew.

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