R. Madhavan, one of the few actors from the Tamil film industry who has starred in some of Bollywood’s biggest hits in the last 15 years, has now written, directed, and produced Rocketry: The Nambi Effect, a biopic on the rocket scientist Nambi Narayanan.
The film, which released in three languages today, tells the intriguing and sad story of how Mr. Narayanan was accused of espionage by the Kerala police in 1994, then exonerated and awarded compensation by the Supreme Court, and in 2019, was awarded the Padma Bhushan.
Madhavan calls his film “exhilarating” and says that he has done his duty by telling the story of a man who was a genius, and of a nation that pulled him down to its own detriment. The scandal, he says, didn’t just impact Nambi Narayanan and his family; it set India back by 20 years in space research. How, he doesn’t explain. And nor does the film.
In May this year, Madhavan’s directorial debut had its world premiere at Marche du Film, the world’s biggest film market that runs parallel to the Cannes International Film Festival in France. It was an honour, he says, that was extended to him by the Indian government.
A day after he hosted the by-invitation-only premiere of his film at the Cannes film market, Rolling Stone India met with the 51-year-old actor-director. His hotel suite had a glorious view of the Mediterranean Sea, but Madhavan sat with his back to it and began the conversation by shushing the room into silence.
Madhavan is attentive, exceptionally pleasant, and warm. He doesn’t have any airs and graces, but he is no pushover either. Though politely formal and charming, he can be sharp, crisp, and instantly effective. He hates repeating himself and says he doesn’t like being called “Maddy” or even Madhavan by “youngsters.”
Madhavan speaks clearly but very fast. So fast that I calculated his speed. It averages at 225 words per minute.
During the 30-minute interview, he spoke about the film, explained why he got his jaw broken for the role, and why he gained 8 kgs to give a performance that he is proud of. How he lost all that weight in 14 days, he promised, will be revealed on YouTube soon, along with the secret to staying young. The key to that, he said, lies in our teeth.
Edited excerpts of the interview with Suparna Sharma.
Rolling Stone: I want to begin by asking, why this film, why this story? Why is Rocketry your directorial debut?
R. Madhavan: It wasn’t intended to be, I didn’t want to direct this film, I didn’t want to direct at all. I am not qualified as a director… This was just a story that I was supposed to act in and meet a guy who was wrongly put in jail for having an affair with a Maldivian woman. And then he was released because they found him to be innocent. And somehow ISRO was taken back 20 years because of this incident. This is all that I knew. And I thought it was a good James Bond film to be part of… It’s only when I met this gentleman that I realized that even though he was very upset about what had happened to him, and there was a lot of angst in him, that he had not been given justice, was called a traitor, there was a lot more to him than met the eye. It was this revelation that started consuming me… And I realized that this story needs to be told… And it needs to be told as best as I can because nobody [else] seems to have taken this story up in the 20 years that it’s been available.
RS: So what was it about him, what was that “more to him” that you mentioned?
RM: Exactly! So, I kept asking this question to a lot of people who claim to know a lot about Nambi Narayanan – I simply asked them, why has he got the Padma Bhushan and nobody really knew… That is what I was talking about in terms of ‘what about him.’
Even though he was talking about the case, how he was wronged, I realised that his achievements far superseded everything that the country knew about him. The fact that he was the father of the only cryogenic engine that India has, which is completely indigenous, an unfailing engine… and that he did so many adventurous things around the world to make that happen was something, I thought, that needs to be told.
RS: You’ve written the film, and directed and acted in it. So what do you think? I mean, how would you rate yourself as a director?
RM: (Exclaims in Tamil that I don’t understand but take as, ‘Oh my!’) It’s my first film. And if I knew that it was going to be premiered at Cannes, maybe I would have done it differently. But it wasn’t meant to be that way. It was meant to be a small film about a man who was wronged and, you know, just a question to society saying, ‘Why are we like this? Why do we take down the best among us simply because they sound too good to be true?’
RS: But the film doesn’t explain that, right? Though that is the take-off point of the film, it’s not clear why he was made to suffer. The film doesn’t answer that…
RM: As you would have seen in the end of the film… A simple line that he says, ‘If I’m innocent, then somebody is guilty. Who is that guilty?’ As a nation, that’s our responsibility to find out.
I don’t want to venture out and tell you who is guilty because it’s not proven, nor is it in court… But as a nation we desire to find out – Why did we step back 20 years? Who is responsible for it? And what was the reason behind it?
RS: How did the premiere at Cannes happen?
RM: Actually, I got a call from the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, and they said, ‘We would like to take Rocketry to Cannes as the first film as our selection, will you be ready to show it in Cannes?’ This was probably eight to 10 days before we were supposed to travel.
The film’s release was still planned for July 1st. So, it was too premature for us.Unlike Top Gun, which premiered at Cannes and was going to release the next day, for us it wasn’t that perfectly timed. But then the choice was whether to do it or not. And I figured, we’ve taken so many risks with this film, why not?
RS: You met the Prime Minister with Nambi Narayanan [in April last year]. Why?
RM: Because Mr. Modi is a huge fan of Mr. Nambi Narayanan’s work and rightfully so. Because the Mars Mission was accomplished because of the Vikas engine. So, yeah, when we wanted to do the film, and we wanted permission to shoot in ISRO and other places, we wanted to make sure that we had the support and the permissions required for it, and not shoot the film and then find out we are not allowed to say ‘ISRO,’ not allowed to say this… We just wanted to make sure we’re on the right side of everything.
RS: I asked that because these days… Mr Modi’s blessings are, you know, good for the box office…
RM: Those are your words, Ma’am, not mine. If that was the truth then a lot of films would not be doing well, which is not the case.
RS: Mr. Nambi Narayanan is shown to be very religious in the film, though he’s a scientist. There’s a lot of religion in the film. I was wondering whether he is that religious in real life.
RM: Like I said, everything you saw in the film is factual.
RS: So there’s no deviation at all, no creative liberty…
RM: Jo aap bol rahi hain who bilkul sahi sawal hai. Aur mostly, jab aap biopics banate hain, you have to take a little bit of liberty to make it palatable for cinema. But ismein humne who bhi nahi kiya. Agar humne kuchh kiya, toh humne actually facts ko nikala hai [taken out], taki log kamse kam itna toh believe karen ki yeh sach hai.
RS: So even the France bits, and the stuff in Russia – they are all as he has narrated and as he has recorded…
RM: As it has happened and as it is in the records, including of the countries that we visited. So, for your information, we shot in France. We shot in the exact establishment that he worked in; we had to give them the script for approval… Which means that’s exactly what happened… [It’s the] same thing with all the other countries as well.
RS: So he is that religious and a scientist at the same time?
RM: I think a lot of them are in ISRO. You’ll be surprised how they actually, ummm, let me say, pray to all religions because you have Abdul Kalam, you have Narayanan, Singh, you have Homi Bhabha… All of them, I think, had a nice corner in their hearts for religion as well.
(We were barely eight minutes into the interview, and though the PR lady had promised me 15 minutes, she now stood directly in my line of sight, gesturing repeatedly to end the interview.
Madhavan looks at her, then at me and says, “No, no no. That’s okay. We can talk”.
The PR lady says something to him, to the effect that they need to wrap it up.
He looks straight at her and says, in a voice and volume that immediately increases the temperature in the room, “It’s okay. We can talk. Give me five to 10 minutes. Thank you.” And then he turns to me).
RS:You do a lot of body changes for roles. Here also you, I don’t want to be rude…
RM: No, please be rude.
RS: Did you deliberately put on weight for the film? Was that part of…
RM: You’ve seen the film, and you know how the film ends. And you know how imperative it was for me to look like Nambi Narayanan, or else a lot of the last part of the film would not work… So, for that I had to put on weight.
I might be making a tall claim here, but I don’t think there’s any film in the world that has carried 50 years of a man’s life without prosthetics. We have not used any prosthetics in the film. In fact, my teeth, and I will show you a video right after this interview, I had actually twisted them out of shape, got my jaw broken, and pushed the teeth inside so that I could look like him. And after the shoot was over, I rectified that and brought it back to its natural state.
RM: Because if I wore [false] teeth, then I would not be able to speak like him…
RS: Now my focus is totally on your teeth…
RM: Yeah, ha ha. Even the weight. I did a lot of research in terms of how to put on and lose weight because… we shot the film from [him being an] old man right up to him getting young. There was no way of going back and re-shooting something that didn’t work. Also, we were shooting in three languages. Every actor of mine was speaking Hindi, Tamil and English – one shot in English, one shot in Hindi, one in Tamil.
We couldn’t afford to make a mistake because if I had my hair dyed all silver, and it took me 14 hours to get to that look every day for those three days that I had to be the old man, then once I got the hair colour changed, I couldn’t go back to that. So we had to precisely plan the entire schedule.
RS: So you got a dentist to, like, break your teeth…
RM: Hahaha! Not break my teeth. I had to kind of rearrange my jaw…
RS: It’s teeth, not Lego, right…
RM: Yeah, let me show you [and he shows me a dentistry video on his phone with his teeth all crooked and misplaced].
That’s one of the things I wanted to prove with this film. You know, the Indian film industry is not considered scientific enough. When Christopher Nolan says something you believe it to be a fact. Why don’t you believe it when we [desi] filmmakers say it? We’ve done research, Ma’am. I can tell you how to look younger in five minutes, I can tell you how to lose weight.
RS: Please do.
RM: Yeah, I will… It’s not commercially inclined… If I tell you once, you won’t listen to what I have to tell you again because you’ll be cured. But I’m telling you that I had to do it on myself first to prove that it can be done.
I can tell you how youth is maintained on your face because of your teeth. I can tell you how your body actually listens to what you say and it can listen to you in 15 days, and you can get back to what you want to be.
RS: You mean, as in, speak to the body…
RM: No, no… what your intentions are.
RS: I’ve been telling my body to lose weight for…
RM: No, but you know… It’s a simple thing. Let me give you as brutal an example as, ‘Hey, you know, I want to put on weight. Everybody says you have to have protein to put on weight, so let me drink six glasses of protein shakes and let me put on muscles.’ You will never put on muscles.
It’s a simple question I want to ask every health magazine – please tell me, boss, if I want to put on muscles and [for that] I have to have your protein shake, let me have six. Why will the body still not put on the muscles? Because your mind is not telling your body that you need the muscles. It will only tell your body you need the muscles when your intent is to start working out.
The most muscular animal in the jungle is the ox…
RM: It is the most muscular animal in the jungle. Or the elephant. Most muscular. What does the ox eat? The only thing the ox eats is grass. Where is the protein in it? How does the ox put on so much muscle? So these are relevant questions that are not even given to the public because [if] you ask these questions, suddenly the entire health industry gets insecure.
RS: But tell me, how did you put on weight? You said you had a very short window…
(Shows me a clip from the film in which he, as Nambi Narayanan, is laughing while being interviewed by Shah Rukh Khan).
RM: This is my real stomach during the film… People say that could be padding, so I show them this video where you can look at my stomach when I’m laughing. Look at my stomach (points to his happy, jiggling stomach in the clip) because a padded stomach won’t shake and wrinkle, right. So, from here to here [gaining 8 kgs] in 18 days.
RS: What is this raaz?
RM: So like I said, this is all very scientific. It’s not the whims and fancies of an actor.
We’ve done a series called Secrets of Rocketry, which will eventually release, and we will tell you how we did it. We will tell you how your teeth are so much more important to keep the youth in your face and the wrinkles out… We’ll explain why you need to put oil in your hair because if I didn’t do that, and I put my hair through the kind of shit that I did for 18 hours, I’d be bald as a bat by now, but I am not.
At certain times in your life, your body becomes intolerant to certain substances that you eat and think are good for you. And then that very thing becomes poisonous for you… and there’s a scientific way to find that out, it’s a 10-minute test. And you stop that and your body will stop bloating.
RS: So, this whole thing, weight loss, looking younger, is what you have got from researching for this film and making it?
RS: In the film there’s a lot of Mr. Modi, especially towards the end.
RM: My film was ready four years ago. It was delayed because of Covid. This film’s censor certificate is two years old. It is my own money, and I would have had to release it when I could.
Why Mr. Modi? Simply because he was the only one to actually recognize Mr. Nambi Narayayan when he came to office. He was the first guy who took responsibility for the Mars Mission and have Mr. Nambi Narayan recognized for his efforts… So I am looking at him as my Prime Minister. Please do not politicize what I’m trying to say because it’s unfair to my nation, it’s unfair to my country to put a stain on me in terms of my alignment, because that’s not the intent.
We know, we find a reason why a film can be successful [but] let me tell you the futility of it all. You cannot force the public to go see a film. It doesn’t matter who you are. I can give you examples of producers who have bought tickets and given them to the public and have still had empty halls. And the part where Mr. Modi is giving him the Padma Bhushan, it’s a historical fact.