There are films that are breathless, and films that need to breathe. Some whisk the audience along so confidently that irresistible forward movement becomes the whole point. But not every film is built for this. Pausing has its virtues. Rocketry needs to breathe.
From the start, R. Madhavan’s film on real-life aerospace scientist Nambi Narayanan is in a weird hurry. About 15 minutes in, Nambi (Madhavan) has joined Princeton with the express purpose of learning about liquid propulsion. He gets a reticent professor to take him on as a student by offering to take care of the man’s ailing wife and running his house; he also meets Neil Armstrong in a bar, and is told Soviet state secrets by a classmate. So far, so weird, but at least I felt I was running alongside the film at this point. Then, all of a sudden, Nambi is discussing chambers and membranes and active combustion. Before I could get a grip on what all this meant, he's being courted by NASA. A few scenes later, he's back in India, working for the space programme.
It's annoying when a film canters ahead yelling jargon and expects the viewer to tag along. There's a fundamental gap here. This is a film about rockets—you have to sell the science. Why does Nambi favour liquid propulsion over solids? What is a stability test and why is cash-strapped India able to pass it so comprehensively? Why did they need Rolls Royce’s hydraulics tech? “I’ll tell you why cryogenic fuel was important,” a white-haired Nambi says to Shah Rukh Khan, whose interview of the scientist for a TV show allows Rocketry to unfold in flashback. He then says something like “It was important because we needed it”, and moves on.
When everything feels predestined, the journey loses its appeal. There’s barely a scene that doesn’t further the plot. I kept hoping for a pointless scene—Nambi sitting and thinking, drinking coffee, listening to music; something that might reveal the character for what he is instead of showing us what he did. But the film is full of dull purpose from start to finish. When there's a smaller gesture, it's usually unsubtle, like the orange, green and white backdrop behind Nambi when he rejects NASA and returns to India.
The best passage is when Nambi takes a group of Indian scientists to France on a three-year stint that’s framed like a spy mission. It’s vague but diverting, with the enterprising Nambi running rings around his hosts, tricking them into offering up technical knowhow that India couldn’t afford outright (Rajeev Ravindranathan does fine comic work as Param, a nervous colleague). At a crucial juncture, he lies about a death back home to keep one of his men there. It’s a rare glimpse of an unlikeable, ruthless Nambi—though the film backtracks, with immediate justification offered by Shah Rukh Khan and eventual forgiveness by the wronged party.
This reversal is not unexpected from an Indian biopic, which rarely have the heart, or the stomach, to look squarely at their subjects' flaws. When Nambi gives an emotional speech about not having been a good father or husband, we have no reason to agree or disagree, since we’ve been shown so little of Nambi the family man. Madhavan is replaced by the actual Nambi for the last few scenes with Shah Rukh. It’s a good stunt, but there’s a smugness to it. If I’ve watched an actor play someone for two-and-a-half hours, I want to stay with that interpretation till the end instead of having real life intrude.
This is Madhavan’s first film as director, and it shows. There’s a blandness to the framing and shot-making; the only visual tactic is to have the camera look down from a height. There are strange interludes with shaky camera and blurred sound, which look like outtakes from a zombie movie. The writing, by Madhavan and Sukhmani Sadana, is strictly functional; perhaps the Tamil version, shot simultaneously with the Hindi, offers something closer to colloquial speech.
In 1994, Nambi was arrested by the Kerala police on allegations of sharing secrets with Pakistan. He was jailed and, he claims, tortured. The case was later thrown out, and damages of more than a crore were awarded to Nambi. The film treats the scandal with the seriousness it warrants, though it can’t, or won’t, tell us why it happened, beyond pointing to a shadowy Indian-American scientist. In the end, a teary Shah Rukh asks Nambi for forgiveness on behalf of the country—an oddly distressing image after the events of last year.
Rocketry shows how quickly the state machinery can turn against a citizen, even an exemplary one. Yet, this is a consistently patriotic film. Nambi doesn’t accept Khan’s apology, yet the last shot is him accepting the Padma Bhushan. He constantly bends rules to further India’s needs; ironically, rule-breaking becomes his legacy. These are complexities and contradictions worth exploring. But Rocketry doesn’t want to stop and think, it only wants to run.