Rocketry: The Nambi Effect is a Middling Biopic Bar Madhavan’s Commitment

Pop Culture

Rocketry: The Nambi Effect is a Middling Biopic Bar Madhavan’s Commitment

Illustration: Arati Gujar

An early sequence in Rocketry: The Nambi Effect presents the protagonist with a dilemma. The sequence is set in the late 1960s/early 1970s, in America. A young, brilliant Nambi Narayanan, after a stint as a graduate student at Princeton University, is offered a plum job at NASA. For a scientist dreaming of space, that organisation at that point in time was perhaps the best place to be. In addition, the monthly salary on offer was the kind that would have taken him years to make, back home in India. No matter who such an offer was put before, rejecting it would have been a decision and a half. Sure, we know how it’s going to pan out. But the dilemma turns out to be no dilemma at all. Forget about delving into how Nambi grapples with the choice before him, we don’t even get him saying ‘no’. A single cut is all the transition it offers to have him back at ISRO, under the stewardship of Dr Vikram Sarabhai, ready to change Indian space-faring technology forever.

That particular moment typifies one of the reasons Rocketry is mostly a lukewarm film, despite a committed central performance by R. Madhavan (who has also written and directed the film). The story of Nambi Narayanan absolutely worth telling. But Madhavan’s choice of checking life-event boxes, as opposed to digging below the surface and exploring the mind and relationships of the man, ends up not doing justice to him. What you get, then, is a largely underwhelming film with highs and lows that don’t stray too far from its median.

Take, for instance, his relationship with Dr Sarabhai (Rajit Kapur), regarded as the ‘Father of the Indian Space program’. Nambi himself saw the man as not just a mentor, but a father figure as well.

The most important figures in Nambi’s life merely enter and exit around the protagonist, who himself relentlessly goes from scene to scene, in an attempt to capture a life’s worth of story in two and a half hours. Take, for instance, his relationship with Dr Sarabhai (Rajit Kapur), regarded as the ‘Father of the Indian Space program’. Nambi himself saw the man as not just a mentor, but a father figure as well. It would have been a fascinating dynamic to explore, but the film eschews spending any time on their relationship, so it can name-check other illustrious space-folk instead.

So, there’s a completely irrelevant chance meeting between Nambi and Neil Armstrong, after the latter had already completed his historic lunar mission. Dr APJ Abdul Kalam appears at some point as well, in yet another insignificant detail in the story. (There’s even a Russian named Yuri, but they stop short of taking a last name.) What you end up with is a film in which scarcely a scene stands out, apart from the final moments because of one very specific reason that I’d prefer not to spoil.

One particular sequence showcases a sort of ‘mission’ with the space agency in France. Nambi leads a team of about forty Indians (all men), who are looking to learn as much about the cutting-edge technology of the time as they can, without revealing just how much they’re actually picking up from the French. At some point on this ‘mission’, Nambi faces a quandary like no other – to reveal or not, some distressing personal news concerning one person in his team. This person happens to be critical to their ‘mission’, so telling him would mean he would have to return to India. (I instinctively put ‘mission’ in inverted commas because it is too bland to feel like a ‘mission’.) Not telling him would be a gross injustice, but it is in the larger desh-interest. Nambi makes the tough call, and is willing to face the consequences for it, though it is something that would always weigh heavily on his conscience. I found myself disappointed when the internal turmoil Nambi would have faced in that situation was sidestepped, in favour of a patriotic punchline.

The accusations, the struggle of his family as a result of it, the final resolution to the case – all of this is told more than shown.

The result of all this superficial moment-making is that the most important aspect of Nambi Narayanan’s story takes the biggest hit. The man who played such a key role in India’s space program was falsely accused of treason in the early 90s, then acquitted and subsequently honoured years later. The accusations, the struggle of his family as a result of it, the final resolution to the case – all of this is told more than shown.

Nambi’s wife Meena (played by Simran) barely registers as a character, even though we are told that she can’t handle the false accusations against her husband. Even the device used in the film to recount the man’s life story – a TV interview – feels like an easy way out. It doesn’t help that the interview moments featuring the oldest version of Nambi (helped by great prosthetics) end up as the best bits in the film. What does it tell you about the biopic, when the subject’s relationship with the interviewer is defined better than with any person featuring in his actual life story? The Hindi version has Shah Rukh Khan playing himself – a superstar interviewing the forgotten scientist. (The Tamil and Telugu versions have Suriya in this part.) Khan fits into this cameo like a glove, and he has a surprisingly emotional graph through the film, when it cuts to him about every half hour for an explanatory interlude.

Nambi’s wife Meena (played by Simran) barely registers as a character, even though we are told that she can’t handle the false accusations against her husband.

Rocketry: The Nambi Effect is one of those films that you don’t really feel like criticising too much, though there’s little about it that outlasts its runtime. Because it is such a rolling stone, the movie doesn’t seem as long as it actually is. Madhavan is affable and lovable in the right measure, and melodramatic to good effect when the occasion so demands. More than that, it is apparent that he was completely in awe of Nambi’s story; so much so that he wanted to do it all – write, direct and play the man himself. Madhavan’s intent can’t be faulted, and the effort that has gone into the film is visible. It is perhaps some kind of victory that the period portions of the film don’t come across as inauthentic. If only the film had paused between the lines, to say the unsaid it could have been so much more. Then again, when you consider the great injustice Nambi Narayanan faced in his life, a benign biopic seems like a far lesser transgression.

Comments