Actor R. Madhavan opens up about his directorial debut 'Rocketry: The Nambi Effect'

It's the life story of an Indian space engineer who was baselessly charged with espionage before being bestowed the nation's top civilian honour.



By Archie R

Published: Wed 29 Jun 2022, 9:16 AM

Last updated: Wed 29 Jun 2022, 9:20 AM

It had been whirlwind weeks of single-handed media engagements for R. Madhavan, the Indian actor.

In May he was at the Cannes Film Festival in France for the world premiere of Rocketry: The Nambi Effect, written, directed, co-produced and in which he plays the lead role.

Soon after that Madhavan was in the US where Rocketry’s trailer was played on the Nasdaq Billboard in Times Square.

Only a day before he arrived in Dubai — which is now his second home — Madhavan was in Kerala, just to return to India again for another promotional juggernaut. All towards July 1, when Rocketry will reach audiences globally, including here in the UAE.

If Madhavan was fatigued, he wasn’t showing it.

He had a select audience listening intently to how he transformed physically to play Nambi Narayanan at a recent press conference in Dubai, before starting another round of personal media interactions.

He came in, sans entourage, had a hurried word with the organising team, recalled he must do a few official stills, and then sat down for a freewheeling talk.

What shined through — as in all the conversations he has made about the film — was a sense of inspiring authenticity, a genuineness that can come only from a passion and conviction in his film, and his own unwavering value systems.

To put all their money into a project, and devote over four years to it, including a total rewrite of the screenplay, is not easy for actors who need conventional promotions and box office fixes.

But then, Madhavan has been anything but conventional.

An electronics engineer, public speaking champion, and television anchor and actor earlier, Madhavan was thrust into cinematic stardom with director Mani Ratnam’s Alaipayuthey (2000).

With his next films, Madhavan created a compelling arc as an actor ensuring he was one for the long run and not limited by cinematic image-traps.

From films such as Minnale to Run, Kannathil Muthamittal (set against the backdrop of the Sri Lankan civil war), Yuva and Anbe Sivam, to gaining pan-Indian recognition with Rang De Basanti, 3 Idiots and Tanu Weds Manu, Madhavan’s films invariably fit into the list of cult classics.

The transformation of the actor came full force ahead in the 2017 super-hit Vikram Vedha, after which he also did the web series, Breathe and Decoupled.

Now with Rocketry, he is traversing a path destiny threw at him.

Madhavan invested himself into the project after watching a television interview of the Indian space engineer, Dr. S. Nambi Narayanan, the mastermind behind the country’s liquid propulsion technology for rockets that is still relevant and has never failed.

Narayanan was working on cryogenics technology, the next leap in rocket propulsion technology, when, in 1994, he was falsely charged with espionage, endured mind-numbing custodial torture, and faced uncouth media witch hunt, before being fully acquitted of all charges and honoured by the nation with the Padma Bhushan.

As the scientist made a tearful recount of the ordeal he suffered and his journey to vindication, Madhavan was moved beyond words.

Now, with his passion film project realised, Madhavan is most vocal in celebrating the scientist’s achievements and explains why it is a story that must be shared with the world.

Excerpts from the interview:

You were in Dubai some 20 years ago to shoot Dil Vil Pyar Vyar. Now the city is your home, and it has been a fantastic journey for you. How do you look back?

I think it’s a very blessed journey. I’ve never expected to be an actor in the first place. And now to be considered an actor, and then, over a period of 20 years, getting to direct and produce my own film, have its world premiere — all that is like having an out of body experience. My wife and I still hold each other’s hands and think… what has happened, how did this happen…I think that childlike glee is still there with us.

You have said that the one thing you learned from films is to respect the screenplay and focus on it. So, as a writer, how difficult was it for you to script Rocketry?

As somebody has said wisely before, the script for Dr. Nambi Narayanan’s life has already been written. I didn’t have to rewrite it. I only have to rewrite if there was a lack of masala or lack of film-worthy scenes. But since many scenes, which are more than film worthy, have been written, my job as a screenplay writer, and a director, was only to select what I need to tell out of his life story. It was difficult to encompass 50 years of a person’s extraordinary life in two and a half hours. I really had to pick and choose the scenes. And I just had to stitch them together to make into a cohesive feature film.

My only guiding thought was: what if nobody cared about India, or about who Madhavan was, or about India’s space program, or the patriotism involved, does the film still work as a story? If somebody was to watch it in Brazil, or in Chile, or in Russia without knowing anything about anybody, that’s a film. That was my yardstick for my screenplay writing. The toughest part was to select what to keep and what not to keep.

How did you break down all this complex scientific jargon involved in Rocketry, which people might not understand?

I think this must be last statement you — and I — make of what people don’t understand. I don’t think there is any film that has come out of India, or anywhere in the world about technology that people have not understood. Look at Inception and Interstellar. The Indian public gave Rs100 crore to those films. The Indian public is vastly intelligent. We don’t give them a good [science-based] film.

So, you feel that we have been underestimating the audience?

I don’t feel. I know. As media, as artists, as directors, as storytellers, we completely underestimate them. They have moved way ahead. We are stuck in our own conditioning of our world.

So, if we can say one thing with confidence it is that you are not patronising the audience with your script?

I’m not dumbing it down. There is rocket science, in all its royalty. But even if you don’t understand the rocket science, you will understand the impact of his work. You don’t have to understand every formula but those who understand rocketry will not cringe; even NASA will say that it is scientifically accurate.

The research took two years — understanding the functionality of the liquid fuel engine and what it does, and why it is an extraordinary engine. And then it took a lot of time to make that into a script and bring it to such a level that people will get the impact. And those who understand the technology will be blown.

The film comes at a time when the army, the institutions, even science is not spared. What is your observation about all that is happening in India now?

I’m not qualified to answer that right now, simply because I’m here to promote (the film).

That’s fully understandable. But…

This is exactly the problem we are addressing in the film. We have spent 15 minutes talking… and we need to find out what did Dr. Nambi Narayanan do to be awarded the Padma Bhushan. That is what we need to talk about.

He invented the only engine that India has, which is completely indigenous. That means… built with only Indian nuts and bolts, which can never fail. The beauty of that engine is extraordinary. A large part of Dr. Narayanan’s life was doing something for India… for developing this engine. He is a scientist who is also a James Bond, and my film is completely factual. It is based on verdicts, on facts that have been proved.

Despite Dr. Narayanan being exonerated, there is a still a section of people, especially the media in Kerala, who believe there is some merit to the entire thing. It is sad but true…

That is exactly what we’ve touched on. If anyone knew the repercussions of what they were doing, who they were ruining, and its impact on our country, I’m sure nobody would have done it because nobody would have wanted India to go back 50 years. A man has already been ruined twenty years ago; we should focus on what he has achieved… which tells you what India is capable of achieving…

In his biography Ready to Fire, Dr. Narayanan says, “this is the story of the conspiracy against my country. This is my story.” With this film, will we finally know what the conspiracy was because to this day we don’t know why or who were behind it?

We go beyond that. The film will make us think ‘why are we like this?’… Why are we allowing something to happen like this in our own country, and why it is so essentially important to save and celebrate and cherish the likes of Dr. Nambi Narayanan.

There are so many people like him in India, and this intellectual capital needs to be nourished because in the years to come — which is much closer than what you and I think — space travel will be much more predominant. And the likes of Dr. Narayanan will help us achieve that in our country.

What is one thing that you learnt from Dr. Nambi Narayanan?

The one thing I have I learned is that despite what happens to you and all the challenges, you can never change your personality. The kind of brutality we have exercised on him, what we have done to his wife and children… despite all that… to this day he only speaks about India, about how we need to have more launches from Srihari Kota… I thought that was fantastic. I wish I could imbibe that quality.

Finally, after all this, how do you go back to cinema as an actor? Would there be any part of you that has changed, having written, directed and acted in this film?

I have completely ruined it for myself. That is why I do not want to be involved in any other aspect of filmmaking other than acting for the next few years.


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