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Rocketry: The Nambi Effect


In fact rocket building is a team effort and the team leader may take credit but the contribution of others was never denied. ‘Rocketry’ as a film is based on limited insights and solely on the claims of Nambi, while neglecting the conflicting claims of various parties.

By RK Nimai

Recently in a social media group, an information that the Hon’ble CM and his Council of Ministers had witnessed R Madhavan’s Rocketry: The Nambi Effect at a special screening was uploaded and a few had commented that Nambi Narayanan is a genius and sympathised his harrowing travails when he along with a few others were alleged as spies in an espionage case, known as the ISRO spy case. As a follower of this case, this writer was taken aback by the film, which is full of incorrect statements made. All biopic add masala to make it more interesting as true life story of most, except a few colourful individuals just could not attract audience.

The film was premiered in Cannes Film Festival on 19 th May, 2022. As he was admitted for his Masters in Princeton, he has to be good, and he can be claimed to be a brilliant engineer or scientist but to call him a genius is totally unfounded as he has not made any original contribution. Genius will come out with seminal works and not copy from other works, which was the case in ISRO. The tragedy of the film is that it put to poor light on ISRO, a premier organisation respected for its work throughout the world.

Anupama Chopra, film critic, slams the movie for showing the protagonist as a true blue Hindu patriot leaning heavily on his patriotism and religion with subtle interlay. Nothing wrong in a person being patriotic or religious but she is correct in saying that an over simplistic approach and “ambitious juggling act has resulted in a well intentioned, moving in parts, but also clumsy in content and craft.”

The film shows him undergoing his Masters in Princeton, refusing fat pay cheques returning to his mother country where his future is bleak. It also shows that Nambi had not only pioneered the science of building PSLV and GSLV and was the topmost cryogenic scientist.

The saving of APJ Abdul Kalam from serious injury, the argument with Vikram Sarabhai to convince the latter on the advantage of liquid propellants, solving a problem in France in a jiffy on certain issues, etc are all masalas to add spice and make the protagonist a bigger than

life hero.

Would the film maker have the guts to add such if Kalam and Sarabhai were alive? The accused in the spy case were two Maldavian ladies Mariam Rasheeda and Fauziyya Hassan, Narayanan and D. Sasikumaran of ISRO and K. Chandrasekhar, (seriously ill) representative of Glavkosmos and Sudhir Kumar Sharma (deceased) a contractor for allegedly transferring documents related to the Viking engine. Ravindra Reddy, a business partner of Prabakar Rao son of the then PM Narasimha Rao was also reported to be allegedly involved. Nambi had got his pound of flesh after the Court accepted the report of the CBI that the allegation was false but his co-accused suffered a lot with Chandrasekhar becoming a pauper.

Madhavan had based his film on limited insights and solely on the claims of Nambi, while neglecting the conflicting claims of various parties. The reason, why the case was foisted on him and the others still continue to belie though CIA is reported to have a hand and the final words is yet to be said on the matter. Countries which have the technology do not want its transfer as the area was likely to become huge commercial ventures. In fact, ISRO is now a place where other countries come to put up their spacecrafts in space for various purposes at a much cheaper cost. The matter is still in the court against the eighteen policemen involved. But a psychological in depth assessment of the characters, would have made the film more human and realistic. Human being all has his good and bad aspects and it is only in the films that a person is only good or only bad and the Bollywood characterisation was adopted in this film also, far away from reality.

The claim that due to the suspension of Nambi that the PLSV was delayed by decades is far from truth, the delay cannot be ascribed to any individual. In fact rocket building is a team effort and the team leader may take credit but the contribution of others was never denied.

The allegation of espionage started in 1994 but the CBI in 1996 filed a closure report that there is no case but due to elections and politicking only at the intervention of the Supreme Court was the matter ended in 1998. Redressal suits followed and politics re-entered with the PM candidate Modi meeting Nambi in 2013 and reports were published that the police officer who make the allegations Shreekumar, who made the allegation of the involvement of the Gujarat Government in the Gujarat riots on 2002 was done in exchange of dropping charges of faulty investigation in the ISRO espionage case.

The matter ended when in 2018 Supreme Court by a Bench headed by the CJI Dipak Misra directed compensation to Nambi and in the same month he was recommended for the Padma Bhushan. A question that arises is why the Supreme Court direct compensation to only Nambi and not to the others; one of whom had been in jail for a longer period and all were allegedly tortured, though Kerala High Court had earlier refused to accept the torture claim?

One of the 18 policemen charged with the foisting of the spying allegations S Vijayan had in an affidavit claimed before the Kerala High Court with supporting documents, that is encumbrance certificates, that land were transferred from Nambi and his family to various CBI officers involved in the investigation; in other words the investigation on the spy case was biased. However, the Kerala High Court dismissed the plea but permitted to file proper sale deeds and not encumbrance certificates to prove the transfer.

The matter is complex but some insights can be gained by going through Rajasekharan’s “Classified: Hidden Truths in the ISRO Spy Story” and Harvey’s “Russia in Space: The Failed Frontier?” the involvement of the CIA, etc. The innocence of Madhavan’s on the complex issue can be gauged when he put his foot in his mouth in a press conference claiming that ISRO used “panchang” an old almanac for the Mangalyaan mission and had to retract it saying it was very ignorant of him though insisting that Vikas Engine developed by Nambi is a rock star, without realising that this engine technology was got from France. The depiction in the film led to reaction from his co- accused Sasikumaran who said Nambi Narayanan’s claim in Rocketry are utter lies.

He stated “It is a crime to portray Nambi as the most outstanding scientist of ISRO”. Sasikumaran claimed that he was not tortured which is in line with Kerala High Court observation. It was also revealed that the boss of both Sasi and Nambi, Muthunayagam is infuriated by the claim in the film and told that Sivaramkrishnan Nair developed the whole PS 4 and PSLV, CG Balan worked on its critical components and Shreedharan Das also made significant contribution by developing the entire control system for ISRO and Nambi just can’t be compared to these brilliant scientists. He also stated that Vikas engine was not developed by Nambi or any others but rather it is originally Viking engine developed by German scientists, with one German who reached France after WWII being the architect and no claim can be made by anybody regarding the Vikas engine. Nambi was in the team for the transfer of the technology from France but he was involved in managerial matters and not on scientific or engineering matter which were handled by two other teams.

In addition, scientists who had worked with Nambi, such as Dr. AE Muthunayakam, D. Sasikumaran, EVS Namboothiri, Shreedhar Das, Dr. Adimurthy, Dr. Majeed, George Kosi, Kailasnathan, and Jayakumar who were all involved in the development of the cryogenic engine in a press conference stated that Nambi got the Padma Bhushan not on the basis of his work at ISRO. It was clarified that under EVS Namboothiri, ISRO started the process for developing its own cryogenic engine in the mid-eighties and Nambi has no role. Later under the leadership Gnana Gandhi, the development of the cryogenic engine started but Nambi was not a member of the team. It was also clarified that it was not Vikram Sarabhai who sent him to Princeton but LPS Director Muthunayakam. Muthunayakam further stated that an agreement was signed with Russia in 1993 to transfer cryogenic engine technology and Gnana Gandhi was tasked to negotiate but Russia suddenly withdrew due to pressure from USA. It was renewed in December 1993 and instead of transferring the technology it was decided to transfer the engine. In November 1994 Nambi tendered his premature retirement followed by his arrest so he has no role in the development of the engine.

In fact, Muthunayakam, who was the founder Director of the Liquid Propulsion Systems Centre and is known as the “father of propulsion technology in Indian space program”, put in his papers when Kasturi Rangan was appointed as Chairman of ISRO after Dr. UR Rao, sidelining him, but he was made Secretary in the Union Department of Ocean Development at equivalent status.

Thus it is clear that Madhavan’s film was amateurish in its conception based on the claim of only one individual, who no doubt had suffered due to a false allegation for which he was amply compensation not like the other co-accused. Trying to show the protagonist as a ladies’ man is rather stupid. The film seems to be merely an attempt to take advantage of the conditions currently prevailing in the country after the success of The Kashmir Files. A film to watch with your thinking brain left behind. The story is if you manage well without any real work you can be rewarded, provided you know where to pull the strings either blatantly or with subtlety. Supreme Court is also a group of individuals; each with his own belief and conviction and an order passed by it can be reviewed as in the case of the recent pronouncement confirming the amendment to the PMLA which now is under review on two aspects- not providing an Enforcement Case Information Report to the accused and the reversal of presumption of innocence.

(RK Nimai is a Retired IAS officer)

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