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R Madhavan in 'Rocketry: The Nambi Effect'. Image Credit: Supplied

Indian actor R Madhavan, like most of us, didn’t understand the puzzling ending of Christopher Nolan’s 2010 blockbuster ‘Inception’, but he still loved the polarising heist thriller.

The same goes for Hollywood money spinners like ‘Apollo 13’, ‘A Beautiful Mind’ or ‘The Martian’, which follows the template of great Americans swooping in to save the world.

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'Rocketry: The Nambi Effect'. Image Credit: Supplied

Madhavan is keen to spin that oft-established narrative in India’s favour now. Enter his ambitious and arduous debut directorial ‘Rocketry: The Nambi Effect’, which chronicles the life and times of Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) scientist Nambi Narayanan who was framed as a spy and arrested in 1994. Narayanan is now a free man but continues to fight for justice by declaring war against those police officials that falsely implicated him and set back Indian rocket science by several decades due to the fake spy scandal.

“I want to use that template used in ‘Make America Great’ films and make India great through this film. Remember, we have very limited resources and we are a much younger country, but we have managed by amalgamating ancient philosophy and science with our modern technology. India’s a super power to reckon with and we have recognised that in my film,” said Madhavan in an interview with Gulf News.

Narayanan, 80, famously led the Indian space agency’s cryogenic rocket engine project and was a bona fide genius in his field. At 54, he was arrested and instantly branded as a traitor who allegedly sold rocket technology to a rival nation, after falling into a honey trap set by two women from the Maldives. His dignity and respect were torn to pieces, but he fought hard to successfully reclaim his position and glory.

“He’s India’s real-life James Bond,” observes Madhavan, who spent several years writing the script. The actor, who has also written, produced and acted in this film, spent months with the rocket scientist to get into the skin of his character. Apparently, he had dug deep into his flaws and had warned the scientist that this biopic won’t be hagiographic fare.

Actor R Madhavan with former Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) engineer Nambi Narayanan poses for a photo during the screening of his upcoming film 'Rocketry: The Nambi Effect', in Mumbai on June 30
Actor R Madhavan with former Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) engineer Nambi Narayanan poses for a photo during the screening of his upcoming film 'Rocketry: The Nambi Effect', in Mumbai on June 30 Image Credit: ANI

It’s not a vanity project either, Madhavan assured us. Superstars Shah Rukh Khan and Suriya feature in the Hindi and Tamil versions of this film and they famously didn’t charge a dirham for their contributions because they believed this was an important story to be told.

“I made this film with one principle in mind which is nobody cares if the person watching didn’t give a rat’s [expletive] to who Madhavan, Shah Rukh, or Suriya is … Even if they don’t understand rocket science, I just hope a guy sitting in Mongolia or France or Argentina will stick with the movie till the very end,” said Madhavan.

This film, which premiered at the 75th Cannes Film Festival and received a standing ovation, is this actor’s labour of love. He battled rejections, setbacks due to COVID-19, and directors and the cast being altered regularly to tell this tale. He even had his jaw broken and teeth aligned to look like the real-life rocket scientist.

“I played a man from 29 to 79 years of age without prosthetics. This is no wig, no fake moustache, no padding … All the scientists in this film grew their hair, put on weight, lost weight, just to look original. We didn’t want anything fake in this film,” said Madhavan.

To put on weight, he gorged on cakes containing sugar and lactose that his body couldn’t tolerate. Then he munched on beetroots and cucumber to shrink his size.

‘Rocketry: The Nambi Effect’ releases in the UAE cinemas on July 1. Excerpts from our interview with the actor about his pet project, his idea of a true patriot, and why Nambi Narayanan was a true-life superhero of India …

Why should we watch your debut directorial ‘Rocketry: The Nambi Effect’ that you wrote and acted in?

‘Sometimes a man is wronged is a nation wronged’, and that’s the tagline of our film. Sometimes, taking down one individual can actually hurt an entire nation and take its progress back by 20 years. If you get that, then please watch the movie because it will be proved right.

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'Rocketry: The Nambi Effect'. Image Credit: Supplied

You have always maintained that this is not a glossy biopic where you sandpaper the subject’s flaws. Bollywood is notorious for glossing things over …

I have shown enough and more flaws in this one because unless I show you the flaws and I make him human, you won’t understand humanely what his achievements are. So if I’m making a biopic with someone who comes across as holier-than-thou, then even Nambi Narayanan didn’t want it to be on those lines. He was open to talk about his flaws and it completely blew my mind. I capture it all in its full glory.

How involved was Nambi Narayanan in the editing of this film?

He wasn’t involved and I was given absolute freedom. He just wanted his story to be told and he wanted to see the final film. And I did show him the final film. He didn’t have a word to say about what to keep and what not to keep.

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R Madhavan. Image Credit: Supplied

What were your observations about the rocket scientist?

I have said it in the film too that he’s impatient, arrogant, boisterous, short-tempered. But he’s also a true patriot and he only does what is right for his country. He also does that with cruelty. He’s ruthless for the sake of what he needs to achieved. And, I want to learn and imbibe those qualities because you can’t be nice and achieve greatness. When you have those attributes that make you ruthless, you can beat the odds in today’s world. He had those qualities and he still does and that’s phenomenal. But do you know all these qualities like being boisterous, outspoken, and arrogant become a good quality when you see it in a patriot as he talks about his country and when he wants to challenge somebody. There’s a sense of reflected pride when you come across a patriot with these qualities.

You seem to be close to the subject and you are heavily invested in telling his story, so how did you gain distance?

Maybe I wasn’t that close to the subject because I am playing him and that gives you a certain distance. You must understand that I was playing multiple roles. I started off as a writer, then I became a producer of this film, then I became a director and then I had to be him. So to say that I had objectively distanced myself from him would be complete [expletive]. I was him and I have no regrets about that, but it did not cloud my judgement or my thought process. The writing about everything about him was written become I began playing the role.

R Madhavan at Cannes
R Madhavan at Cannes Image Credit:

The film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and got a standing ovation. The guests — mostly cinephiles — are notorious for booing if they don’t like a film. But your directorial was embraced …

There were a lot of Indians in that audience. But we are not talking about any audience here. If you are at Cannes, you are an expert in your field. There were others who belong to the non-Indian diaspora. But that standing ovation from them wasn’t to me or to our film alone. They were giving a standing ovation to Nambi Narayanan and the person he was. They were cheering for a man who does exist and his demeanour was fair. And as a filmmaker, that was my biggest compliment.

Biopics are a popular staple of genre in Bollywood and biopics with a strong patriotic slant are even more alluring. A producer even admitted that these days getting financed for such projects with patriotic fervour is easier now … Your thoughts?

You are intelligent enough to understand that you are talking about ‘these days’. For me, this happened six years and it wasn’t ‘these days’ back then. It was the beginning of something else. I put my money where my mouth is back in 2016. I met Nambi Narayanan and started producing the film. And remember that this film industry is the most non-analytical industry as possible. You cannot use any parameters to analyse and judge which film will do well or not. Sometimes, you fall flat on your face because it’s a creative, artistic medium. Even if everybody keeps slotting trends, there’s very little you can predict about the future. Biopics are a trend because they worked at one point of time. But my film is not just a biopic. It’s a hardcore James Bond film. But my market as an actor was not capable of sustaining a Rs1 billion film which is why I put in my money into it. Many were sceptical and they have all the rights to be and that’s why I decided to put my money where my mouth is. I was a man possessed.

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'Rocketry: The Nambi Effect'. Image Credit: Supplied

I couldn’t agree more. You even cracked your teeth and realigned your jaw for this film. You went to extreme lengths to look authentic to your subject …

It was not a vanity project. I didn’t do it as a whim or fancy to prove a point. There will come a point in the film where you understand what I have done physically, mentally, and everything will make sense to you … And you have known me for so long and you know vanity isn’t my best friend.

Don’t miss it!

‘Rocketry: The Nambi Effect’ is out in UAE cinemas on July 1.