It’s not dawn yet when the camera shows a house where morning prayers are heard and a man sits chanting hymns.Madhavan’s introduction in Rocketry begins with this picture of a praying Brahmin, making jokes with the family—a talkative wife (Simran), a son, a daughter, a son-in-law.It is meant to be the day Nambi Narayanan, a scientist with the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), gets arrested in a case of espionage—a case that would later be declared fake by the courts.
Madhavan wrote, produced, directed and acted in the film after hearing Nambi’s story.More than a month after the film was released, a few scientists who used to work with Nambi at the ISRO alleged that Rocketry made a lot of false claims.The comments they made did not touch upon the merits of the spy scandal case but the scientific achievements credited to Nambi in the film.Though Nambi has not responded to the comments, a source close to him gave TNM the copy of an open letter purportedly written back in 1996, by former ISRO chairpersons and other seniors involved in the space program about Nambi’s contributions to the organisation.
At a press conference held last week in Thiruvananthapuram, scientists led by former head of Liquid Propulsion Systems Centre (LPSC) of ISRO, AE Muthunayagam, brought out a two page document, listing out the work they have done for the ISRO, and alleging that Nambi’s claims in the film are not based on facts.
“My colleagues from the ISRO brought to my attention the false claims by Nambi Narayanan and the film Rocketry and requested my response.The ISRO authorities are the concerned party which needs to clarify but they are keeping silent.
Hence I am giving my response,” Muthunayagam said.
For most of his years at the ISRO, Nambi had reported to him, and his name was not mentioned a single time in the film, Muthunayagam saysHe had headed the Space Science & Technology Centre (SSTC) where Nambi joined, he was the Vikas Project director that Nambi worked as a manager for, and he was the director of the Liquid Propulsion Projects with Nambi reporting to him.”Mr Nambi Narayanan never had any responsibility in the development of liquid propulsion stages independent of me,” Muthunayagam said.Vikas, derived from the name of space scientist Vikram A Sarabhai, is the name given for a family of rocket engines that run on liquid fuel and conceptualised by the LPSC in Thiruvananthapuram under the ISRO.In the movie, Madhavan is seen as naming it Vikas but the scientists said it was TN Seshan who named the project.
Muthunayagam has not watched the film yet, but heard about it from others.Neither has D Sasikumar, another renowned scientist at the ISRO, who had worked with Nambi and also got arrested in the spy case.He too was present among the scientists at the press meet.
Watch: Trailer of Rocketry
It is a multidisciplinary task, not one man’s doing
Their issue seems to come from the depiction of Nambi as leading the teams for acquiring liquid propulsion technology from France in the 70s and later the cryogenic technology from the Soviet Union, a process which began in the late 80s.
Cryogenic engines were essential to put satellites in geostationary orbit but the technology was complex and kept as a closely guarded secret by many countries.
Countries like the United States and France quoted high prices and finally India signed an agreement with Russia in 1991But they would only give engines, not the technology.The Indian cryogenic programme was formalised in 1994 and the first successful flight was made in 2014.
Three types of propellants are used for rockets: solids, liquids and cryogenics.The energy that is burnt by each of these increases from solid to liquid to cryogenic.A cryogenic engine was vital to India’s space dreams as it would allow ISRO to send bigger rockets into space.
The scientists kept stressing that most of these divisions in ISRO are multidisciplinary and crucial roles are played by engineers and technicians from different departments.
Muthunayagam’s note says that for the Vikas project, Nambi was given the responsibility for development activities of liquid stage; Kasi Viswanathan for activities related to Vikas engine hardware realisation and Karunanidhi for assembly, integration and testing.
Nambi, in the film, comes across as someone who single-handedly pushes for liquid propulsion, leading a team of more than 50 engineers to France to acquire the technology in the 1970s.“But Muthunayagam is the main person behind the Vikas project.France had the technology but not the resources.We had brand new engineers.The deal was that we’d give them our engineers, they can use them for their program, and the engineers in turn will understand the technology they use.It was a sort of barter deal, agreed on between the Indian team comprising TN Seshan (joint secretary at the Department of Space), Muthunayagam and the SEP in France, with the blessings of our chairman Satish Dhawan.I was one of the engineers, along with Nambi, sent to France for the project,” says Sasikumar.
Still friends with Nambi
Sasikumar tells TNM that none of the scientists who have come out now have anything against Nambi, and that they are still friends with him.Only, they felt the idea given out by the film may downplay the role played by the other scientists and give a wrong picture among the public.
They saw the comments that came about the film, and felt it was time that someone spoke out.
Engineers and scientists at the ISRO are not the kind who would reach out to the public and speak about anything, Sasikumar saidThey never ‘go for fights’, he adds.In Nambi’s book Ready to Fire that he co-authored with Arun Ram, he wrote how no colleagues from the ISRO stood up for him during the spy scandal.In the film too, it is shown how nobody, except an old estranged colleague, came to see him.
They have come out now “only because the errors accumulated so much and distorted views are spread among the public,” the scientists said at the press conference.
The cryogenic project
Among these “distorted views” they mention the depiction of how Nambi led the cryogenic project between the Soviet Union and India, until American interference made it difficult.EVS Namboodiri, another former ISRO man who was present at the press meet, said that he and a few colleagues had started the cryogenics project in the early 80s.
“We had written a study report on semi cryogenics but did not get permission to go ahead at the time.By 1984, we had formed another study group and submitted a 15-volume report of more than 7,500 pages.That was the starting point of the cryogenic system at the ISRO.
We sought Russian technology in the years that followed and a collaboration happenedThe technology transfer did not happen due to political interference.But with the (limited) technology we acquired, we formed a new project of which I was the chairman and Gnanagandhi was the director.The major activities in this project happened after 1995,” EVS says.
Nambi was arrested in 1994, Muthunayagam pointed out.He was not there when the major cryogenic activities began.It took four years for the Supreme Court to clear his name in the case.
“His suspension was revoked in 1996 and he joined back.He still had five to five and a half years before retirement.But he didn’t do anything for the cryogenic system in this period,” claims Sasikumar.
The scientists also question Nambi’s closeness with senior scientists such as Abdul Kalam and the founder of ISRO, Vikram Sarabhai.
It is not based on facts, Muthunayagam saysThe film has scenes showing Nambi closely conversing with Sarabhai and Kalam.With Kalam, he is shown having friendly battles as Kalam stood for solid propulsion and Nambi for liquid.As young men, both are seen debating with each other on an experiment which results in an explosion.Kalam is shown objecting to Nambi going to Princeton to learn liquid propulsion, because he is that invested in solids.Later in the film, an older Kalam as president is shown coming to the rescue of Nambi and team at a crucial point.
“Nambi never worked with Kalam.There were seven of us in the SLV3 (rocket) project managed by Kalam.
Nambi was not in the team,” Sasikumar said.
What Nambi’s lawyer said
Nambi Narayanan did not want to comment or react to his former colleagues’ allegationsHis lawyer, C Unnikrishnan, said that a film may use certain creative freedom in dramatising a story, but that was no reason to think any less of Nambi’s contributions to the ISRO.He shares an open letter written in 1996 and signed by six major names in the Indian space science about Nambi’s role in leading the Vikas and cryogenic projects for the organisation, which was produced at the court for the espionage case.This includes the names of TN Seshan, Satish Dhawan, another former ISRO chairman UR Rao, renowned scientists Yash Pal, Roddam Narasimha and S Chandrashekar.
They wrote that Nambi was the leader of the team of engineers sent to France for acquisition of liquid rocket technology and that he was also the leader of the cryogenic engine project for a short while.”He led with great ability ISRO teams vested with the responsibility of delivering the second and fourth stages of the PSLV project.He was also for a while the leader of the cryogenic engine project,” the scientists wrote.
“I went by what they said in the letter,” the advocate said.
When the allegations by the scientists came out, there were questions of why they had remained silent all this time, and did not speak when Nambi brought out his book, or when he received the Padma Bhushan (the third highest civilian honour given by the Indian government).The scientists reiterated that at the ISRO they never fought each other or reached out to the public.
But the film had created false impressions among the public regarding the happenings at the ISRO that they had to come and correct it, the scientists said.
Interestingly, in their open letter attesting Nambi’s role in the ISRO projects and his innocence in the spy case, Satish Dhawan and the others write that “like many large organisations, the space organisation tends to suffer from petty jealousies and professional rivalries that get translated into personal animosities.”
Even those who stand by Nambi’s story in the film agree that it has ended up as a hagiography, dramatising events a tad too muchThe day of the arrest is for instance written entirely differently in the book and in the film.In the book we read how a jeep had stopped outside his house in November 1994 and Nambi had quietly gone with the policemen.In the film, Madhavan, who plays Nambi is pushed face down on a muddy puddle on the road, and each of his family members attacked and humiliated.
Read: Rocketry review: Madhavan stumbles through an intriguing real life story
Sasikumar, who had been arrested even before Nambi in the case, says that he too had been humiliated but there was no physical torture at the hands of the police.Nambi had mentioned how he was beaten up by the police in his book.In the film, Madhavan is continuously tortured for days.”They would not let you sit down or go to sleep and question you all the time.
There was that humiliation, but no physical torture,” Sasikumar says.
Neither he, nor the other scientists who have spoken up, doubt Nambi’s innocence in the spy scandal.
Also read: The real-life story of Nambi Narayanan, the scientist Madhavan plays in Rocketry