R Madhavan: Going like a rocket

The sky is the limit for actor-director R. Madhavan, who proves his passion for cinema with Rocketry: The Nambi Effect, while taking us on a curated tour of his charmed life

r madhavan in bar Jacket, L’avenir Skins; Denims, Gstar Raw; Shoes, Christian Louboutin; Sunglasses, Opium Eyewear

Month after month, we explore the trajectory of Indian cinema’s great talents. More often than not, we hear about the struggle and rejection that paved their path to success. R. Madhavan’s story is diametrically different to most others. He doesn’t recall his first-ever stage appearance. He never aspired to be an actor. Looking to make some “quick legal money,” he had a portfolio shot, so he could pick up some modelling assignments. He landed his first acting job almost as soon as he started circulating his portfolio pictures. From TV shows with Tony and Deeya Singh, to working with the legendary Mani Ratnam, his journey reads like pre-destined puzzle pieces that were meant to slot together effortlessly. Through it all, there’s an air of providence to his tale that suggests cinema was waiting for him. 

r madhavan cover Suit and shirt, Osman Abdul Razak; Shoes, Christian Louboutin; Sunglasses, Opium Eyewear

Before we move forward — into the world of Rocketry: The Nambi Effect — we travel back in time, collecting old puzzle pieces. A few years ago, Madhavan rediscovered his school yearbook. It dates back to Grade 12, when he was an exchange student in Canada. In the time-honoured tradition of yearbooks, it notes his name (“R Madhavan, aka Maddy”), his favourite saying (“Holy cow!”) and his ambition. “I don’t know what I was thinking, because I was studying to be an electronics engineer and get into IIT, but in the yearbook I had written that I want to be ‘a rich and famous actor… jack of all trades and master of some.’ It’s stunning, isn’t it?” he asks. What could possibly have motivated that comment, we wonder. This thought leads us to Nayakan (1987) — Mani Ratnam’s epic crime film, starring Kamal Haasan. Madhavan, aged 16, remembers it as the first thing that sold him on the excitement of cinema. “To see Kamal Haasan on screen in Nayakan made me realise that a film can reach out and touch me. I was 16 and expectedly impressionable. We would sporadically watch English films when I was a child, but I had no real education as far as cinema was concerned. Watching a movie was more of a family outing than a cinematic experience. It was a luxury; a treat that our parents used to give us if we were good in school. Then came Nayakan and I remember feeling emotions that I never thought a film is capable of making me feel. I felt like my heart was reaching out and I was actually rooting for a character, and when he died, I was shattered — I didn’t know whom to be angry with! It was at that time in my life that a deep-rooted desire must have been instilled, that perhaps I had been supressing, where I wanted to be part of filmmaking. Now that I look back at it, I realise that I wanted to be able to touch people like that, through the medium of film. It was not about being an actor or being a star — the excitement was in having the ability to conduct an orchestra, where you are telling the audience when to laugh, cry, smile, feel hollow or feel elated. I think that’s the closest you get to playing God.”

An “awe” for Mani Ratnam and “an absolute admiration” for Kamal Haasan’s acting talent fuelled the dreams of a “hormonal teenager,” says Maddy, who confesses with equal honesty that he never moved towards that dream, or even considered it too seriously, in the years that followed. It is poetic then that Madhavan won his first Tamil Nadu State Film Award for Anbe Sivam (2003), starring alongside his idol Kamal Haasan, directed by mentor Mani Ratnam. 

Films mark milestones for Maddy, with Anbe Sivam cementing its place amongst his greatest hits. “My first film with Mani Ratnam completely changed my life and my career. Another milestone would be Minnale (remade in Hindi as Rehnaa Hai Terre Dil Mein), because I had a lot to do with the screenplay, and it established for me that I knew how to tell a story. I had done five films with Mani Ratnam when we did Anbe Sivam, but this film had me going head-to-head with one of India’s greatest actors. Standing in front of a major icon and holding your own; that was certainly a milestone for me! After that was Rang De Basanti (2006), which firmly established my presence in the Hindi film industry as somebody who could pull off an eight- or nine-minute character and still make it memorable. The film itself was pathbreaking of course,” Maddy recalls. From 3 Idiots (2009) — “that changed cinema for all of us” — to the Tanu weds Manu series “that re-established desi romance,” Madhavan’s milestones continue. Saala Khadoos (2016) makes the cut, not for being his “comeback film,” but for a more personal reason: “It showed me that I can change and manifest my body the way I want to, at whatever age, and that was, again, a great learning experience for me.” Vikram Vedha (2017) is on the honours list too, but Maddy has no compunction in confessing that his greatest milestone to date is the biographical film on Indian aerospace engineer Nambi Narayanan, that he has written, directed, co-produced and starred in.

r madhavan lead Shirt, Khanijo; Trousers, Marks & Spencer; Shoes, Christian Louboutin; Sunglasses, Opium Eyewear

Premiered at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival on May 19, Rocketry: The Nambi Effect made it to theatres in early July 2022 and to OTT (on Amazon Prime Video) later in the month. That Madhavan has received rave reviews for his performance comes as no surprise. His level of commitment to this film is akin to madness: as lead actor, director and co-producer, with story, screenplay and dialogue credits to boot, Maddy has thrown everything but the kitchen sink at this project. He talks me through the process of realigning his teeth to look and sound more like Nambi Narayanan. As I watch him adjust his Invisalign aligners on our shoot, it is clear that getting his regular jaw and tooth alignment back is still a work in progress. Then come stories of 14-hour stints to colour his hair, the weight loss and gain to convincingly essay a character who ages by decades during the course of this film… for dedication alone, awards are merited. In an age when prosthetics are convincing and acronyms like VFX and CGI dot film credits across the globe, Rocketry is an old-school nod to the classics.

The film is, of course, an homage to the incredible Nambi Narayanan, but it is equally a tribute to the passion, talent and convictions of R. Madhavan.

Still fixated on his dental work, I ask if he ever felt like he had bitten off more than he can chew with Rocketry and he laughs out loud: “Only during the bloody promotions! I’ve done interviews around the world and I have had to answer everybody with equal enthusiasm. I didn’t have a different director or co-star who could share that responsibility with me on this film.” 

To me, Rocketry seems like a once-in-a-lifetime gig — the culmination of a dream once fulfilled that one would never attempt again. The kind of project that leaves you elated and battle-weary all at once. But Madhavan is no ordinary foot soldier. Both figuratively and literally, he is the captain of his ship — undaunted by choppy waters and deep commitments. “I always wondered why Aamir Khan never directed again after Taare Zameen Par, and now I think I can understand it. But, on the other hand, there is Clint Eastwood. I want to be somewhere between them. I want to be someone who can act when I want to and jettison the entire director, writer and producer from my body, to just be an actor. At other times, I want to be able to spearhead a project. I have said, quite recently, that I don’t want to direct again immediately, but I think that was my fear speaking. Honestly, there is so much more to do. The reception to the film gives me confidence that my convictions and my beliefs have a place in this world. I have been at points in my life where anyone might think that there is no other mountain to climb. I have stood on that cliff edge before. Scaling those peaks don’t stop me from wanting to climb other mountains,” says Madhavan.

r madhavan adjusting jacket

Thirteen years ago, when Madhavan and I last spent the better part of an entire day mapping his personal and professional journey, he described himself in a single word: “unpredictable.” So much else has changed in the interim, but this holds good even today. Two years ago, Maddy and his wife Sarita upped and relocated to Dubai to support their son Vedaant’s aspirations to compete as a swimmer on a global stage. “We moved at the drop of a hat. I hadn’t really planned that,” he confesses. “Directing Rocketry wasn’t planned either. We recently bought a boat. I now have a captain’s licence. Who’d have thought it?” Unpredictable and incredible appear to be synonyms in Madhavan’s book. We have voraciously read the chapters that he has already written. Meanwhile, the pages that follow flutter and beckon. The rest of his tale may be unmapped, but it is destined to be mesmerising. 

r madhavan oversized jacket Shirt, Perona; Jacket, Onitsuka Tiger; Sunglasses, Turakhia Opticians; Cowboy boots, Madhavan’s own

A MAN ON THE MOVE

When you commit to a character so completely, do you find a part of each one lives on even after the film is over? 

The nature of the process is such that you get into the character. You go deep. But I can’t take Saala Khadoos with me to Rocketry or vice versa, so I really have to cleanse myself — and it’s not a very difficult process. It takes a little time, so I go out and I forget about acting to such an extent that I get anxiety pangs when I come to a new set on the first day. Everybody thinks I am going to ace the first shot and I’m thinking I’ve forgotten to zip up my fly because of the way people are looking at me (laughs)! All those fears start coming in. But this detox is unlearning and it is good for me. While you are working on the film, yes, you carry the character everywhere, because you are also looking like him. You know, you’ve put on weight, your hair is different, your teeth are different… but once you finish the film, you burn the clothes and put it behind you. Truth be told, I am enriched because of all the characters I have played, and they are all an integral part of my life, but none of them have left anything behind. I need to reset myself to survive, and I do that all the time. I hope to God I am right, but I think you will never see shades of a previous character travel from one film to another with me. For instance, you won’t see Farhan Qureshi from 3 Idiots in an Ajay Rathod.

What’s next on your work wish list?

I’d like to do a comedy as soon as possible. I want to do my version of Pretty Woman — an age-appropriate romance maybe (laughs). I do think a lot of romance is left inside me. I also want to do a Dracula film and a superhero film. I’m not joking. A ‘Count Dracula’ or a ‘Beauty and the Beast’ type film. I’d like to work with Ron Howard. I’d like to work with the writer who did Ozark. As an actor, I want to be part of a series where you are just in character for years. Like Friends or The Big Bang Theory, where you come back to a character for some part of the year, every year, for years on end.

Do you still manage to make time for golf these days?

Yes. Golf and aero-modelling have been my hobbies for a long time. I have always tried to learn a new skill in the beginning of every year, so last year I learnt how to sail a yacht. I got myself a captain’s licence and I got myself a boat. I don’t have a house, but I do have a boat (laughs).

With all the travelling you do, where is home?

We moved to Dubai two years ago, but India is home. Airports are home (laughs).

r madhavan smiling

ON ROCKETRY AND RAJINIKANTH

DIRECTING SHAH RUKH KHAN: Directing him was unreal! My wife is a huge, huge fan and I think she was charmed by him, as always. That day I scored more brownie points with Sarita because she had a different admiration for me (laughs).

A JAW-DROPPING EXPERIENCE: Apart from what I did to my teeth, we have done so much else (while filming Rocketry) that hasn’t been done before. All seven scientists put on weight and lost weight again within 14 days. We chose not to use prosthetics in this film. We shot in eight countries with live sound, with each actor saying the lines in three languages. 

A ROUSING RECEPTION: One of the most outstanding calls I’ve had since the film came out was from Rajinikanth sir. I have always been a huge fan of his, but now I have become another level of devotee. I really now know that he cares for the film industry. He went out of his way! Him and his wife, they both called, and the kind of things they said (he repeats their praise in Tamil and then loosely translates): “All the films on one side, this one film is enough for you. The purpose of your life has been served.” I cannot tell you the kind of relief it gave me and my entire team and, for that, we are completely indebted to him. He not only complimented me and the team, he made it a point to call Nambi Narayanan sir and talk to him and make him feel like a god. For Rajini sir to do something like that… it says volumes about the kind of person he is. The kind of heart he has.

LIVING THE DREAM: “It was not about being an actor or being a star — the excitement was in having the ability to conduct an orchestra, where you are telling the audience when to laugh, cry, smile, feel hollow or feel elated. I think that’s the closest you get to playing God”

Two years ago, Maddy and his wife Sarita upped and relocated to Dubai to support their son Vedaant’s aspirations to compete as a swimmer on a global stage. “We moved at the drop of a hat. I hadn’t really planned that,” he confesses

r madhavan close shot Suit, Khanijo; Sunglasses, Turakhia Opticians

S. Nambi Narayanan (left) is an Indian aerospace engineer, who contributed significantly to the domestic space program while at ISRO. In 1994, he was falsely implicated in an espionage case. Rocketry: The Nambi Effect is his story

COVER STORY NOTES: By Sonali Velinker Kamat

M adhavan remembers being all of 16 when a “deep-rooted desire” to be associated with filmmaking took a hold of him. I was just about a year older when I first met the man. He had already established himself as a rising star on television, but the Mani Ratnam chapter of his life had yet to begin.

In the two-plus decades since, Maddy has made his mark in iconic films including Anbe Sivam, 3 Idiots and Rang De Basanti. He has also aged like fine wine. When we meet at the St. Regis in Mumbai for this cover shoot (after an interval of over 10 years), I tease him about his greying beard. “I still have all my hair,” he laughs in response, and I have no suitable flippant comeback, because this is true. With his twinkling eyes, sharp wit and warm intensity, Maddy is just as captivating now as he was thirty years ago. 

There’s an added magnetism in the fact that today’s Madhavan has found his calling and committed to it absolutely. There is no greater testament to this than Rocketry: The Nambi Effect — a film he has directed, co-produced, written and starred in. It is a labour of love, that is also a showcase of talent and passion par excellence.

r madhavan jacket

If you watch the film — and you should — it is easy to see Madhavan’s blood-sweat-and-tears commitment to it. What you won’t know, until you read our cover story this month, is that this is an extremely personal project for the film’s lead actor: it brings him a full circle from a long-cherished teenage dream. “I was 16 and expectedly impressionable when I saw Kamal Haasan on screen in Mani Ratnam’s Nayakan. That was the moment I recognised that a film can reach out and touch me,” Maddy confesses, adding, “Now that I look back at it, I realise that I wanted to be able to touch people like that, through the medium of film. It was not about being an actor or being a star — the excitement was in having the ability to conduct an orchestra, where you are telling the audience when to laugh, cry, smile, feel hollow or feel elated. I think that’s the closest you get to playing God.”

There is certainly something spiritual in the way that our cover star — and my dear friend — has surrendered himself to his craft with Rocketry. He realigned his jaw (something he is still in the process of reversing) and put his body through the paces with his extreme weight gain and loss. He pulled favours with friends, including Shah Rukh Khan and Suriya… the list is long and impressive.

Expectedly, Madhavan is all fired up about Rocketry. At THE MAN, we are fuelled by this passion and delighted to watch him soaring into the future in style.

Hair: Satish Gole 

Make-up: Chitranjan Shinde

Styling assistant: Komal Soni

Artist reputation management: Raindrop Media

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