When it comes to biopics, the Indian film industry has a tendency to either resort to hagiography or pure antagonism without any nuance. In recent years, there have been a few notable exceptions, including Shoojit Sircar’s “Sardar Udham”. Nevertheless, my expectations are usually moderate. The R-Madhavan directed “Rocketry: The Nambi Effect” is the latest addition to the list of Indian biopics.
For the longest time, the aerospace engineer Nambi Narayanan’s life has been reduced to an espionage case in the Indian media. This movie strives to set the record straight. It is divided into two halves- the first half dealing with Nambi Narayanan’s contributions to the space research program and the second half dealing with the case.
A crucial, laudatory and distinctive characteristic of the writing is that it doesn’t dumb down the science. We are exposed to a young and charming Nambi Narayanan (played by Madhavan) whose brilliantness shines through. Indeed, the movie seeks to explain his genius to us by his ability to find ingenious solutions to technical problems. He manages to convince an affable but difficult Luigi Crocco (played by Vincent Riotta) to supervise his master’s thesis through his charm, pleading to help him take care of his ailing wife as well as other household works. The audience is given the impression that Narayanan is brilliant and he knows it. In one scene, for instance, he argues with his Princeton professor over inaccuracies in the textbook.
The focus, however, is exclusively on Narayanan. Insofar as the supporting characters play any role in the first half, it is as a means-an-end i.e. to help introduce the audience to personality quirks of Narayanan. Vikram Sarabhai (played by Rajit Kapoor) is supposed to be a father figure to Narayanan. Yet, the movie does not spend much time emphasizing on their bonding, leading the audience to essentially feel no emotion when he passes away. Similarly, Gulshan Grover as Abdul Kalam in a cameo role is not given enough time to establish Narayanan’s friendship with him. He comes across as someone unwilling to believe or entertain Narayanan’s ideas, dismissing them as fanciful. Given this, the only purpose they seem to serve is to let the audience know that Narayanan knew and worked with these great personalities.
The foreign nationals, with the exception of Crocco, are all represented as caricatures. Many of the instances in the movie shown to explain Narayanan’s brilliance are hilariously embarrassing. For instance, Narayanan convinces the CEO of Rolls Royce to give ISRO technology worth 400 million for free to ISRO. Colonel Cleaver agrees because he feels an overwhelming sense of grief for what they i.e. British have done to India by partitioning the country. The entire scene is hilariously unconvincing and embarrassing.
Here lies a major contradiction: the film expects the audience to be intelligent enough to admire scientific achievements but dumb enough to believe in caricatures of guilt-ridden foreign nationals. Yet, the film is not a complete hagiography. For instance, Nambi hides the death of his colleague Unni (Sam Mohan)’s three year old son so that Unni completes the project instead of leaving it midway.
While the movie attempts to be nuanced, it fails to provide any insight into Nambi’s internal conflicts, instead focusing on the event. The second-half of the movie is a treat and relatively fast paced. We come to know about the terrible torture that Nambi is put through by the police. The false accusations of treachery impacts his life irreversibly. He faces protests and his closed ones go through trauma. This is where the actress Simran, playing Nambi’s wife, shines through. She convincingly essays the role of a self-respecting traumatized wife who stands by her husband.
Shah Rukh Khan is charming as ever as the interviewer of Nambi. That the older Nambi looks almost exactly similar to real life-Nambi reflects the great lengths to which the production team has gone. The movie ends with a cameo from the real-life Nambi and his words leave a lasting thought-provoking impact.
"Rocketry" is an important movie. It highlights the ways in which overarching state power and corruption can affect the lives of innocent citizens. It is good enough to make you think about how much the country would have benefitted if Narayanan hadn’t lost his productive years fighting a baseless case. It tells a story that was needed to be told and will no doubt introduce a larger number of masses to Nambi. Though it is a movie that one must watch to ensure more such stories are told, it is also a movie that suffers from serious flaws and lots of clichés.
(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.)
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