A bit like a nostalgic spy thriller…
EFFICENT and well-told, it’s hard to believe this is veteran Bollywood actor R Madhavan’s first foray as a director – and he has a star turn as the lead actor too.
He has done a decent job of telling Dr Nambi Narayanan’s very remarkable life story.
From much vaunted scientific genius to the lowest of the low and then the slow rehabilitation which has probably now culminated in this very remarkable tale coming to the big screen.
Dr Narayanan was an undoubted hero for helping to build India’s first space rockets – created at a fraction of the cost of US or other western entities, the world lay literally at his feet, but just as his genius was being publicly lauded – it all crumbled in the face of spying allegations. These turned out to be wholly without foundation.
If this had been written as a narrative feature – nobody would have believed it. Far-fetched’ and improbable and impossible would have been the adjectives used to describe ‘Rocketry – The Nambi Effect’.
Dr Narayanan began life in Kerala as a brilliant student and ended up going to America for his higher studies. Unlike many of his contemporaries he returned to India – perhaps, the pull of kith and kin was too much. He was already married and had a son when he completed his studies in the US and despite the temptations (not just financial) stayed true to himself.
He was also a deep patriot – something Madhavan the director emphasises almost constantly.
Narayanan joined the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and these earlier years are excellently covered – the scenes with another incredible young scientist of the time, APJ Abdul Kalam – the father of India’s atom bomb and later President of India – are brilliant. There is another movie just in those two and their nascent rivalry at the time.
Gulshan Grover – who usually plays the Bollywood baddie – is superb and so too is Rajit Kapoor as Vikram Sarabhai – the wise boss of these two young upstarts. Sarabhai is another astounding historical figure and was the father of ISRO, effectively.
But Madhavan has other episodes in Narayanan’s life that he must recount to tell this story in all its glory.
Soon we are on a world tour as Narayanan’s mission to build a rocket for India takes him all over the globe.
There is a long stint in France, working with scientists there and these scenes are also endearing and entertaining – whether the French were quite so naïve in not knowing there was a deep technology transfer at work seems a bit overstated.
All of this is told in a sort of long flashback to TV host and Bollywood icon, Shah Rukh Khan, more or less playing himself and asking the scientist to tell his life story to the watching audience.
It’s a very international story – and shot on location in several countries and told in a myriad of languages, though English tends to dominate.
For some, this will simply be a brilliant watch from beginning to end. The pace doesn’t flag and Madhavan holds it altogether on screen and behind the camera too.
It’s hard not to be moved by it, especially the last quarter where such gruesome indignities were visited upon Dr Narayanan, it’s a wonder he survived and has lived to the tell his tale.
Perhaps our only reservation – and it is a relatively small one in the larger context of this film as a whole – is that this is very flat linear (Indian) type storytelling. There are no frills – it goes from point A to point B and takes you there efficiently.
There is a slight and subtle anti-American tinge to it – there is a shadowy Indian American guy who pops up wherever Narayanan is and keeps a beady on him – maybe that was really the case and the Americans didn’t want India to be able to produce a cheap rocket which it could sell around the world; while the Russians are shown as benign and sympathetic. During the Cold War, there’s little doubt that India was closer to Moscow than it was to Washington, but obviously that grid has shifted, a bit.
Still, it’s very frothy on Indian patriotism and there’s a lot to be proud about when it comes to what Narayanan achieved – and watch it for that, if nothing else. Enjoyable with a brilliant performance at the centre of it. (Sailesh Ram)
Acv rating: **** (out of five)
The film is out on general release worlwide today (July 1)
www.asianculturevulture.com saw the film on May 19 at the Cannes Film Festival at a special market screening.
We interviewed Madhavan in Cannes about his first film as a director and covered this film’s launch in Cannes with the real Dr Nambi Narayanan there watching it as well – see
Our interview in Cannes 2022