The Hindi film Mission Mangal tells the story of India’s chutzpah-laden Mars mission. The web series Rocket Boys traces the roots of the Indian space programme through the twinned journeys of pioneering scientists Vikram Sarabhai and Homi Bhabha. One name is missing from this victory parade, suggests Rocketry – The Nambi Effect.
Rocketry stars R Madhavan as Indian Space Research Organisation scientist Nambi Narayanan, who was falsely accused of selling information on India’s cryogenic programme to Pakistan in 1994. The fabrication not only ruined Narayanan’s life but also set back the Indian space programme by a few years, claims Rocketry.
Narayanan’s experience, detailed in his memoir Ready To Fire – How India and I Survived the ISRO Spy Case (written with Arun Ram), is a cautionary tale of how a career can be derailed simply by innuendo and the might of the state. Implicated by the Kerala police and the Union government’s Intelligence Bureau for reasons that remain murky, Narayanan spent decades trying to clear his name.
It’s a typically Indian tragedy, both of its time – the Congress party’s reign – and timeless. However, Madhavan, who has also written and directed Rocketry, ignores the larger implications of the ISRO spy case to instead fan present-day propaganda about the blight that apparently characterised the pre-Narendra Modi years. (For good measure, the prime minister’s voice and visage show up in the final scene.)
A thick air of conspiracy hangs over Rocketry, which has been released in Hindi, Tamil, Malayalam, Telugu and Kannada. The film harks back to the days of the “Foreign Hand” and heavily hints at the involvement of the United States in Narayanan’s fall.
Before it launches into its main argument, Rocketry lurches from one amateurish eureka moment to the next. Narayanan creates a stir wherever he goes, whether it is at Princeton University in the late 1960s, or France, where he teaches his Continental peers a thing or two about rocket propulsion. There are moments in the 157-minute film when it appears that the entire Indian aerospace programme is being steered by one man and his associates.
At Princeton, Narayanan ingratiates himself with the professor Luigi Crocco by offering to cook and clean in exchange for tuition. When it’s time for Narayanan to return, Crocco regretfully says that he has lost his domestic help.
This singularly brilliant scientist is a chick magnet too. In America, France and Russia, women express an admiration for Narayanan that cannot be described as strictly professional.
The family man has a wife, Meena (Simran), back home, and an unwavering eye on the prize. Like other scientists who have achieved miracles on limited funding, Narayanan hustles for technological upgrades that boost India into an elite club whose gatekeeper is the United States.
In the present, Narayanan sits down for a television interview where he revisits his vilification. Shah Rukh Khan, in a heart-stopping cameo, turns on the charm as the movie star interviewer who gives Narayanan the respect he has been denied (Suriya plays the role in the non-Hindi versions).
The absence of context in Madhavan’s script is evident in the moment when Narayanan tells the actor, how many people, Mr Khan, are being made scapegoats in the name of patriotism? It’s a topic with which Khan is unfortunately familiar, especially after recent events.
If there was an opportunity to link Narayanan’s plight to countless other Indians victimised by fake police cases or hounded by intelligence agencies, this was it – but it is ignored by a film with other aims on its mind.
The narrative gains poignancy when it examines the effects of the accusations on Narayanan and his family. Tortured in custody and shunned by society, Narayanan must draw on every last reserve of strength to pull through his nightmare.
A stronger performer might have better conveyed Narayanan’s agony. Madhavan’s dedication, while undeniable, fails to challenge him to rise above his limitations and move beyond flat dialogue delivery and a handful of expressions.
Among the noteworthy actors is Sam Mohan as Unni, one of Narayanan’s associates who learns the hard way that feelings cannot come in the way of progress. Shah Rukh Khan pops up every now and then to leaven a film that tells a necessary story but tells it shoddily and without curiosity.