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Thursday, September 28, 2023

Rocketry Review: Cinematic Ode To India’s Most Treasured But Long-Suffering Scientist

Following its Cannes world premiere, Rocketry: The Nambi Effect has finally secured a theatrical release and is distributed by Yash Raj Films internationally. Though we have science-oriented Indian movies like Mission Mangal, Tik Tik Tik and Cargo (to name a few), this one promises to be very intellectual and informative about a man who was terribly wronged by his own people. It’s a shocking true story that till now, has not been covered by mainstream cinema.

For a first-time filmmaker, R Madhavan undertakes the challenging task of narrating a biographical story of this stature. But he does it well. Through this one story, he moulds it into a melting pot of different genres – thriller, comedy, family/under-dog drama and of course, patriotism. There are fuzzy, time-stamp shots which try to provide a context of the political atmosphere at that given point. I feel these are slightly distracting and could have been done in a way which is more articulate for audiences.

Opening wide and god’s eye view shot exploding from space to the close-up shots of Trivandrum. We are instantly introduced to Mr Narayanan as a devoted family man who is passionate about his craft. The camera work signifies the grandiose of how extraordinary the man’s dreams were, yet so rooted in his approach.

The structure begins with the false allegations of espionage against the scientist. He is falsely charged with selling secrets to Pakistan. As the main crux gets going, the film instantly cuts to the modern-day where Nambi is at a television interview hosted by superstar Shah Rukh Khan. Through this interaction, we are taken back to his early days at Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station. Here, he works with ISRO head Vikram Sarabhai (Rajit Kapur). He even saves A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, one of the team members from a significant injury during an experiment. In 1969, he was accepted into Princeton University, USA.

Nambi successfully completes his MSE program in chemical rocket propulsion under Professor Luigi Crocco (Vincent Riotta) who recommends him for the NASA fellowship. However, after a brief stint at NASA with Barry Amaldev (Sriram Parthasarathy), he is offered a generous paycheck and other allowances. Narayanan rejects it and decides to learn the ropes from the West and develop India’s science fraternity.

During the first half, it took me a while to come to terms with the scientific terminology. I found the pace relatively slow, initially. Nonetheless, being a film (quite literally) about rocket science, the filmmaker allows time for viewers to understand the world. At the same time, he catapults us straight into it, which may or not work with certain viewers. Though, I preferred discovering rocket science as the film advances.

With Nambi being a motivated scientist, we get a glimpse of his arrogant and ruthless attitude. Madhavan, as an actor and director, embraces all shades of the character. His street-smart and intelligence in the subject matter are inspiring yet enviable. As an actor, he is natural. Even in the portions of playing an elder Nambi Narayanan, he carries it off convincingly.

Regarding Madhavan’s direction, the locations and VFX of rockets are brilliant. It is very rare that we see an authentic representation of space science in Indian cinema. Here, the movie delves into technicalities, which engages the viewer and creates a realistic atmosphere. As Nambi is a devout Hindu and passionate about rocketry, it is fascinating how these two faiths are fused. Even during times of adversity, Science and spirituality drive him to stay afloat. This is so poignant to observe.

Contrary to the pre-interval segment, the second half is intense. Scenes of the family being thrown rocks at or a rickshaw driver kicking them off on a rainy evening, pierce one’s soul. If the first part celebrates the magic of science, then this depicts the sinister side of humans. Madhavan, from a 16:9 ratio, resorts to a 4:3 one and presents the brutalities/humiliation faced by the Narayanan family. During these sequences, actor Simran who plays Nambi’s wife Meena is outstanding. She depicts a shock-driven with sincerity. My heart breaks even to remember how Meena sees Nambi after he is released from prison.

Seeing a man suffer injustice, despite being a patriot, is a very bitter pill to swallow. In an era, here where we discuss mental health awareness, Rocketry brilliantly divulges into this subject area. In fact, an apt decision to cast Shah Rukh Khan as the narrator, the voice of reason. Khan has always championed mental health in his works and here, he acts as a soothing balm to a burning wound. I would not even be surprised if some of the dialogue exchanges between Khan and Madhavan are impromptu. Because the synergy they both shared just seems so true. SRK helps tremendously with the story progression.

Throughout the movie, we hear references about how it’s always our own that brings us down. Plus, a scene where a former imperialist is apologetic about colonialism in India, gives me goosebumps. This is why Rocketry: The Nambi Effect works for me. It is a stark reminder of how a cerebrally bruised India has long had a devastating impact on its people. The movie shakes us from within to see how a celebrated figure is stripped of their dignity due to venomous agendas.

By presenting Shri Nambi Narayanan’s story, the movie is an awakening for us to acknowledge how there are so many misconceptions and obfuscated narratives about the heroes of our nation. Undoubtedly, one of the most powerful Indian films to release this year. It is courageous that Madhavan has dedicated a major part of his life to making Mr Narayanan’s story heard by the masses. Thus, we must never forget his name or his sacrifices.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ (4/5 stars)

Watch our interview with director/actor R Madhavan here:

Anuj Radia
Journalist and film enthusiast.

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