How R Madhavan went to extraordinary lengths to make 'Rocketry: The Nambi Effect'

The actor produces, directs, writes and stars in the biopic based on an Indian scientist who was accused of espionage

Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

Actor R Madhavan is the first to admit that when someone says they’re writing, directing, producing and acting in a film, it’s a “surefire recipe for a disaster”.

“All of them require specific skills because they are all extraordinary roles in putting together a film,” he says.

Yet, this is exactly what the beloved Indian actor has done with his latest project, Rocketry: The Nambi Effect, out in cinemas on Friday.

Almost 10 years in the making, the biopic is based on the life of Indian Space Research Organisation scientist Nambi Narayanan who was charged and arrested for espionage in the 1990s, for allegedly selling scientific data to Pakistan.

Narayanan, who spent weeks in jail, was eventually absolved of all crimes, and was honoured with the Padma Bhushan, India’s third highest civilian award, in 2019. An investigation into the involvement of authorities in the conspiracy is still ongoing.

But, as intriguing as Narayanan's scandal was, and despite his eventual exoneration, Madhavan believed there was more to the scientist’s life that had to be told.

Madhavan as Nambi Narayanan, the Indian scientist who was accused of espionage. Photo: Tricolour Films

“I realised that I wasn’t looking at the entire picture and that there was a much bigger story,” he recalls of his first meeting with Narayanan in 2013.

“He was still very upset when he was telling me his story. He had tears in his eyes and told me ‘If you Google my name, all you’ll see is stories about me being a spy’.

“Here was a real hero who’s done so much to help advance India’s space technology, who was accused of being a spy, and who, along with his family, is still living under that shadow today.”

Madhavan, one of a handful of actors who’s had wide success in Bollywood as well as in the Tamil film industry in South India, then decided to write the film himself, with the scientist as a consultant.

Then, after delving deep into his subject’s life story, from his early life as an engineer in Tamil Nadu to his time as Nasa fellow in Princeton University in the US, it soon became clear Madhavan would be the best person to direct the film.

“Everyone said they would stand behind me. So in a moment of bravado, I said ‘Yes’,” he recalls, laughing. “I still remember the first day of the shoot my wife telling me I couldn’t have made a more stupid decision.”

Finding someone to fund the film, the story of which takes place across eight countries, was another tale altogether, he adds.

Rocketry: The Nambi Effect' tells Nambi Narayanan's story, including his time as a Nasa fellow in Princeton University. Photo: Tricolour Films

“We approached many people and were often asked how many songs were in it and how many action scenes. So I just decided to put my money where my mouth is and produce it myself,” Madhavan says.

His “old friend” Vijay Moolan Talkies then joined the project as co-producer.

To make the biopic as authentic as possible and to ensure its wide appeal, Madhavan says he made another “stupid decision” to shoot it in three languages simultaneously — English, Hindi and Tamil.

He also employed the help of his celebrity friends, with Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan and South Indian star Suriya both making cameos in the Hindi and Tamil versions respectively.

The actor also went to extraordinary lengths to ensure Narayanan's transformation from age 29 to 79 was as authentic as possible. He says this included breaking his jaw and replacing all his teeth to show his character ageing. He, along with the rest of the main cast, had to also gain weight and then lose all of it in a matter of weeks, as the portions with the characters' later years were shot first.

R Madhavan at the Cannes Film Festival in May. AP

"We refused to use prosthetics, so there were no false beards or moustaches anywhere. By the end of it, all of us had become weight loss experts," he says.

Rocketry: The Nambi Effect premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May where it received a standing ovation.

Madhavan hopes his labour of love will inspire a new generation of Indians in the field of science.

“We’ve had so many films on war heroes and soldiers and stories about brave patriots who run into blazing fires. Those stories definitely need to be told.

“But there's another type of patriot who puts their life on the line every day. The kind of patriot who come to do their every day knowing very well that nobody will ever come to know about their sacrifice, or their achievements. This is one such story.”

Rocketry: The Nambi Effect is out in cinemas on Friday

India celebrated in Cannes as first ‘Country of Honour’ at the festival — in pictures

Updated: July 01, 2022, 8:48 AM