Madhavan on ‘Rocketry: The Nambi Effect’: ‘We need to showcase India’s scientific achievements’

Actor Madhavan

Actor Madhavan

Filmmaking is not rocket science. Except, for Madhavan, it was.

Between spoonfuls of soup at lunch inside his caravan at Chennai's Prasad Labs, where he is shooting for an advertisement, Madhavan, popularly known as Maddy – dressed in a red shirt and a crisp veshti – recalls the chain of events that led to his upcoming debut directorial, Rocketry: The Nambi Effect.

"I have not directed even an iPhone film till now. I have never gone for an edit. I have worked with great directors, but all I have done was my job as an actor, got my money and headed to the bank," he laughs.

That had to change for his upcoming project, where the 52-year-old took charge. With just a few weeks to go for shooting to begin, director Ananth Mahadevan opted out due to other commitments, leaving Madhavan with just two options: shelve the project or take charge.

He decided to do the latter. "I have laughed at close friends who have taken up more than one department, because I questioned their expertise to do that. With this film, direction was thrust upon me 25 days before the shoot. We had to shelve it or swim ahead. The desire to tell the story pushed me to keep going."

Space and time

Rocketry: The Nambi Effect is probably Madhavan's biggest project till date. It premiered recently at Cannes 2022 as part of the Market section. A couple of weeks ago, the trailer was showcased on the Nasdaq billboard at Times Square, New York.

A still from ‘Rocketry: The Nambi Effect’

A still from ‘Rocketry: The Nambi Effect’ | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

The film, a biopic on former scientist and aerospace engineer at Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) Nambi Narayanan, will be in English, Tamil and Hindi. It showcases how he was falsely accused of espionage and subsequently, how all cases against him were dismissed by the Supreme Court.

The film hits screens on July 1, but its journey harks back to more than five years when the actor and the scientist met to discuss a possible film project. “I went to meet him (Nambi) with a very shallow James Bond-style idea that I am very ashamed of now,” says Madhavan. “Someone told me that this is the case of a rocket scientist from ISRO who had an affair with a Maldivian woman, and was then arrested, tortured in jail and subsequently proved innocent.”

When Madhavan met the scientist in Thiruvananthapuram, he realised he was reading it all wrong. "There was far more depth to this man," he says about Nambi, who was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 2019, "He had done so much for the nation, including building the first liquid engine in India, but just didn't care to tell anyone. It gave me goosebumps, because I realised, as he told me his life story, that he had put his life at stake on a daily basis. The fever that I got that day has not gone away, and it caught on to every person who read the script."

That sowed the seed for a film that soon became Madhavan's passion project. "We have had great big-budget films on our Independence, but somehow, we have completely missed the amazing scientific achievements in this country. When an American makes First Man or Apollo 13 or Steve Jobs, we imagine that they are capable of that... we have equally great people right here in India."

The film didn't come together without challenges, of course. For starters, Madhavan had to look like both the younger and the older Nambi Narayanan. How did he go about that? "I actually broke my jaw to play the part," he reveals, sharing a short video of the process, "The teeth play a vital part in how old or young you look."

Looking like the scientist was one thing, the next challenge was to get into his mind. “I needed to get into his way of thinking, understand what he went through, and how he kept his sanity despite everything,” says Madhavan. “I would call him in the middle of the night to ask questions, and he patiently answered all of them.”

Search for stories

Madhavan burst onto the film scene with Mani Ratnam's Alaipayuthe (2000), which he followed with romantic Tamil films like Minnale and Dumm Dumm Dumm, all leading to fans describing him as the 'chocolate boy' of films. "I couldn't have planned any of those things, could I," he says, looking wistful.

A still from ‘Rocketry: The Nambi Effect’

A still from ‘Rocketry: The Nambi Effect’ | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

“Getting a break with Mani Ratnam is the last thing anyone can plan. And then, finding Gautham Menon for my next film... and Minnale worked,” he says. “I used to always give other people credit for it, which was fair. After two decades, I realised I should give myself some credit for taking those decisions. I have made mistakes, but the fact that I survived them — compared to other people who came with me and aren’t around now — gave me the confidence that I must be doing something right. I started building on that instinct. After 3 Idiots, I realised that I am capable of holding things on my own, and started designing my projects.”

More than two decades since his breakout Tamil debut, Madhavan has moved on to significant character-driven roles, including outings in the OTT space. So, how does he choose his subjects now? "I'm a very limited actor in terms of commercial viability. I don't have the charm or panache to carry off my films in terms of songs and fights. So, I have to look for stories, which led me to Breathe, Decoupled and Maara. Those stories take their own time, and have to resonate with me, with my state of mind."

A younger Madhavan might have depended on his boy-next-door good looks and smile to draw audiences, but not anymore: at 52, Maddy isn't in the mood for romance-driven storylines. "Well, I was out of place even when I was doing Alaipayuthe and Minnale, because I was 30. Looking at some of my work then, I'm shocked I survived, because my clothes are out of place and my hair is terrible. Stardom was thrust upon me back then," he says.

His go-to cinematic themes, currently, are science-fiction subjects that intellectually stimulate the viewer and highlight the nation’s achievements. “I’m tired of people showcasing India in a particular manner in films; I want to make quality films that diversify the way India is seen around the world,” he says, adding, “hopefully, Rocketry will be a step towards that.”

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Printable version | Aug 9, 2022 10:18:27 am |