‘Rocketry’- the Nambi effect | Sunday Observer
Film review:

‘Rocketry’- the Nambi effect

14 August, 2022

The film ‘Rocketry’ was recently screened in many parts of the world including Sri Lanka. Among many big budget Hindi movies, ‘Rocketry’ raced ahead reaching out to audiences from multiplexes to small towns. The film is all about patriotism and nationalism while it focuses on the protagonist Nambi Narayan and the film-maker R. Madhavan.

The storyline is based on the life of the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) scientist Nambi Narayanan who was framed for being a spy. He was arrested in 1994. Though free today, he is still fighting for justice from the police officials who implicated him on false charges.

The script has been written, produced and directed by R. Madhavan who also plays the lead role as Nambi Narayanan. The story spans across Nambi’s days as a graduate student at Princeton University in the United States, before exploring his work as a scientist at ISRO and the false espionage charges levelled against him.

Aerospace engineer

Nambi Narayanan was born into a Tamil Brahmin family on December 12,1941. He was an aerospace engineer at ISRO. He led the team which acquired rocket technology initially from France and later developed it for the Indian Vikas engine used in the satellite launchers.

As a senior official at ISRO, he was in charge of the cryogenic division. Cryogenic engines were used to launch heavy satellites into space. Nambi’s troubles started at ISRO immediately after he took charge of the cryogenic division. He successfully negotiated to buy the cryogenic technology from Russia which was then a tottering regime under President Yeltsin. At the time Americans were exerting a lot of pressure on Russia to break the deal with India to transfer the cryogenic technology.

Russians had succumbed to the pressure and was about to break the deal when Nambi with the help of a few Russian officials lifted the engines from Russia to India. To avoid American attention, he hired a private airline to carry the cargo via Pakistan to India. The plane landed in Karachi in Pakistan for refuelling. Later, it took off to Trivandram in India.

When Nambi and his team landed in India, they began to re-assemble the engines. However, on November 30, he was charged with espionage and arrested by the police and the Intelligence Bureau (IB). The charges against him were based on video clips and statements by a colleague. Nambi was alleged to have received money for transferring drawings of rocket engines.

Nambi spent 50 days in prison. According to him, interrogating officials wanted him to make false accusations against the top brass of ISRO. When he refused to comply, he was tortured until he collapsed.

No espionage

In December 1994, the case was transferred to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). In April 1996, the CBI submitted a report saying that there was no espionage and that the testimonies of suspects had been obtained through torture. He was exonerated on September 14, 2018. The Supreme Court of India appointed a panel to probe the arrest and alleged torture of Nambi. On April 14, 2021, the Supreme Court ordered a CBI inquiry into the involvement of police officers in the conspiracy. On January 26, 2019, Nambi was conferred with ‘Padma Bhushan’ Award for his services to the nation by the Modi Government.

The message the film conveys is that the nation should always be on the alert to the machinations of inimical powers that are waiting to scuttle India’s technological progress. Many incidents happened later which cannot be considered as accidents. Dr Homi Baba, Director of Atomic Commission, died in a plane crash in 1996 when he was on a flight to Vienna from New York along with 116 passengers on an Air India flight.

Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri died in mysterious circumstances in Tashkent, Russia in 1966 when he visited there to sign a peace accord with Pakistan. A few months before his death, he was supposed to have given a go ahead to Dr Homi Baba to test India’s first nuclear device. Dr Homi Baba died 13 days later in a plane crash. A few years later, Dr Vickram Sarabhai, the chairman of Indian Space Research Organization also died under mysterious circumstances. Dr Satish Dhawan, Director of Indian Rocket Propulsion Centre died at a holiday resort.

In a recent book titled, “Conversations with a crow” Gregory Douglas mentions the CIA’s clandestine operations and its alleged involvement in the deaths. Nambi was lucky to have survived to tell the tale. The film has been shot using many locations in India, Russia and France. The film has been made simultaneously in Hindi, Tamil and English. It premiered at the Cannes International Film Festival on May 9, 2022. R. Madhavan has done a fantastic job as an actor, director and scriptwriter. It’s an impressive film you should not miss.

The writer is a freelance journalist and Indologist based in Hyderabad, India.