Rocketry – The Nambi Effect review: Madhavan-centricity, superficiality & Hollywood-style patriotism wrapped in drabness

Nambi Narayanan’s extraordinary story is marred by R Madhavan’s average direction and superficial writing.

Anna MM Vetticad July 02, 2022 11:39:47 IST


(Note: This is a review of the Hindi version of Rocketry. The film was simultaneously made in Tamil, Hindi and English with some differences in the cast.)

The true story of rocket scientist S. Nambi Narayanan is as sensational or perhaps more so than any fictional tragedy that could emerge from a film scriptwriter’s imagination. Narayanan was a leading light in the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) when he was accused of espionage in 1994, only for the charges to be dismissed by the CBI in 1996 and subsequently, by the Supreme Court. The loss of reputation, the social ostracisation, the ruinous effect of the allegations and investigation on his peace of mind, his career and his family have been calling out to be made into a film for over two decades.

The timeline of events is not as easily decipherable in Rocketry: The Nambi Effect as it is in the previous paragraph. What is obvious from the film, however, is that even extraordinary realities can be reduced to ordinary cinema when subjected to average treatment.

Rocketry  The Nambi Effect review Madhavancentricity superficiality  Hollywoodstyle patriotism wrapped in drabness

Madhavan plays Narayanan in this biopic in addition to producing, directing and writing it. This is the starting point of the film’s troubles. Building up his character as a heroic figure is such an all-consuming priority that Rocketry invests next to nothing in those around him – not even in his legendary mentor and the Father of India’s Space Programme, Vikram Sarabhai (Rajit Kapur); not in any of his peers at ISRO who hang around him like a fan club; nor in his wife Meena played by no less a star than Simran.

With everyone else diminished to a mere sidelight in the narrative, Madhavan’s envisioning of Narayanan comes across as made-for-cinema rather than real.

The film portrays the gentleman not just as a genius, but also as a James Bond-like figure masterminding a race across snow-laden landscapes in foreign climes to sneak precious equipment into his beloved India, the envy of his male colleagues for his magnetic personality that attracts white women (a standard Indian cis-het male fantasy) and the very personification of deshbhakti. Maybe he genuinely is/was all the above, but Rocketry does not make any of these characteristics convincing.

Bond’s shenanigans are fun because the series does not pretend to be true-to-life. Rocketry seems not to know whether to pitch itself as realistic or larger-than-life.

The film’s Hollywood-style patriotism further robs it of credibility. Rocketry’s deshbhakti is not the kind currently in vogue in Bollywood (possibly because it is not a Bollywood film, but has emerged from the Tamil film industry): it is not hate-filled, anti-minority or intentionally divisive. Instead, its idea of love for the country is the kind that lazy writers of American mainstream cinema have favoured for decades: a laughable worldview according to which the US is the centre of the universe and all human daring. In Rocketry’s case, white people of the Western hemisphere are easily outwitted, deceived (the French particularly so) or charmed by brainy, enchanting Indians as exemplified by Narayanan himself.

The pedestalisation of the lead mirrors the depiction of India here: ISRO revolves around Narayanan in The Gospel According to Rocketry, such that at one point he negotiates a deal with a European space programme without his boss’ or the government’s knowledge, and he is praised by the said boss for doing so. This scene and several others are too silly to be excused with creative licence as their justification.

To be fair, the format does make it clear that this is Narayanan’s own account of himself. Rocketry is set up as an interview of Narayanan being conducted before a live audience by the actor Shah Rukh Khan (a role played by Suriya in the Tamil version). The film goes back and forth between the Q&A and flashbacks to Narayanan’s journey, beginning with him in his youth winning a scholarship to Princeton University, acing his studies, opting to return to India and to ISRO’s tight budgets instead of accepting a high-paying job in the richly funded NASA.

Rocketry tries to understate its political leanings. That it has leanings is evident, nevertheless, since it extends from the 1960s to the 2010s, skips any mention of past Prime Ministers, yet features a long passage overlaid with the present Prime Minister’s voice towards the end.

Rocketry  The Nambi Effect review Madhavancentricity superficiality  Hollywoodstyle patriotism wrapped in drabness

A star of Tamil and Hindi cinema, Madhavan has often used his naturally innocent appearance to good effect. He mines it here to pull off Narayanan’s blend of cockiness and likeability in the first half, but must explain why, at 52, he wants to pull off the role of a 20-something and 30-something youngster, which is what Narayanan is through a considerable length of Rocketry – this rivals 44-year-old Aamir Khan and 39-year-old Madhavan playing teenagers in 3 Idiots (Hindi, 2009). The makeup department does an impressive job of turning Madhavan into a likeness of the elderly Narayanan though. Like everything else after the intermission in Rocketry, his performance too is overshadowed by all-round mushiness.

It would be unfair to judge any of the remaining actors by their thinly written roles in this film, but the always-wonderful Simran does manage to make a mark despite being stuck on the margins through most of the plot. As for SRK who has to be himself in Rocketry, his charisma is inescapable, but the adulatory, hagiographical tone of the interview is embarrassing, as are the tackily predictable reaction shots from the crew shooting it.

All the foreigners in Rocketry are shown speaking in Hindi. I realise many viewers are put off by films that do this because we know that off screen, Russians in Russia, the French in France and Americans in the US don’t speak Hindi, but (don’t hate me for saying this) I’m okay with it, as I was with all Tamilians in Tamil Nadu speaking Hindi in Meenakshi Sundareshwar. It’s not authentic, it’s not ideal, but I’m willing to play along with a filmmaker who is asking us to suspend disbelief in the interests of less-than-challenging entertainment. Besides, the choice of dubbing voices for the non-Indians in this film are a decent match.

Language is the least of Rocketry’s problems anyway, since it is governed by superficial writing, boring jargon in scene after scene before Narayanan’s fall from grace and run-of-the-mill storytelling. The second half dwells on Narayanan’s downslide, trauma and battle for justice. This section is somewhat more engaging than the first but it lacks clarity and is also over-dramatised too often. It need not have been considering how melodramatic the truth itself is and the advantage this part has of being the part of Narayanan’s story that has been widely covered by the press and thus cannot be brushed aside as probably being the man’s own rose-tinted view of himself, unlike his litany of feats, virtues and deshbhakti that precede it. As put off as I was by some of the stretched out, maudlin post-interval scenes, I confess I could not help tearing up too, knowing that an actual human being and his family went through this hell.

Little credit to the film for those tears though. Nambi Narayanan’s saga deserves better than Rocketry: The Nambi Effect.

Rating: 2 (out of 5 stars) 

This review was first published when Rocketry: The Nambi Effect was released in theatres on July 1, 2022. The film is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video. 

Anna M.M. Vetticad is an award-winning journalist and author of The Adventures of an Intrepid Film Critic. She specialises in the intersection of cinema with feminist and other socio-political concerns. Twitter: @annavetticad, Instagram: @annammvetticad, Facebook: AnnaMMVetticadOfficial

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