In addition to directing, Madhavan plays the role of Indian scientist, Nambi Narayanan, a former Indian Space Research Organization scientist and aerospace engineer known for developing efficient liquid fuel engines and who became embroiled in a spy scandal.
The director attached to the project had to drop out at the last minute due to scheduling conflicts and Madhavan who had a deep understanding of the script having written it himself after conversations with Narayanan had to take up the mantle.
“At that point of time to get somebody to understand rocket science or liquid fuel engine or what rocketry is or what a specific impulse is, or what escape velocity is and how it has to be depicted, a ready director of that caliber in the industry was next to impossible,” Madhavan tells Variety. “So the choices were dump the film or take the plunge as a director.”
Narayanan and the film’s funders were absolutely sure that Madhavan direct it. “Narayanan was initially very skeptical of my ability to understand what he had achieved as a rocket scientist, because it literally is rocket science,” says Madhavan. “But I’m an engineer. And over a period of conversations, you should have seen his excitement when I completely understood exactly what I was saying and preempted his terminologies.”
Over the course of the meetings with Narayanan who is a fan of his work, Madhavan went beyond the film’s elevator pitch — space scientist in spy scandal — and realized the depth of his angst. “I met a man who had deep rooted angst. He was talking with anger about how he was arrested, how he was beaten, how he was tortured, how he almost died in jail, how they hit him and his legs and made him stand for one day,” says Madhavan. “And he stood for two days, just because he didn’t want to succumb to them — these were very, very angsty for him. And he was angry, I could see and that was 20 years later.”
Madhavan also realized the depth of the scientist’s achievements, which include being one of the first Indian Ivy League students, visiting Scotland and receiving $500 million worth of equipment and going to France and learning to build the liquid fuel engine.
Madhavan, who is also a producer on the film, managed all three roles by dint of separation. “I come in as a producer, sort out all the production issues for the day, then I go in as a director and set up, to see what I’ve envisaged and hope to achieve. Then while the lighting happens, the director is thrown out of my body and I become Nambi Narayanan,” says Madhavan. Once the shot is done, the director reverts and checks the shot on the monitor after it has been OK’d by the cinematographer and the sound engineer.
The film was shot in India, France, Canada, Georgia, Serbia and Russia. It features an ensemble star cast comprising international actors Phyllis Logan (“Downton Abbey”), Vincent Riotta (“House of Gucci”) and Ron Donachie (“Outlaw King”) alongside Indian actors Madhavan, Simran, Rajit Kapur, Ravi Raghavendra, Misha Ghoshal, Gulshan Grover, Karthik Kumar and Dinesh Prabhakar with stars Shah Rukh Khan and Suriya in cameos,
“Rocketry: The Nambi Effect” is produced by TriColour films, Varghese Moolan Pictures and 27th Investments. It premieres as part of the Cannes Film Market on May 19.
“I haven’t directed [even] an iPhone film in my life and extremely nervous would be an understatement. But I’ve never felt like this before. I feel like I’ve done my duty, I feel a sense of pride, I feel that I have set out and achieved what I want to in terms of telling a story,” says Madhavan.
Madhavan has no immediate plans to direct again. Next up for him is series “The Railway Men” and film “Dhokha.”