Readers Write In #624: A nuclear physicist and a rocket scientist walk into a bar…

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Readers Write In #624: A nuclear physicist and a rocket scientist walk into a bar…

By Karthik Amarnath

Ok, so let’s play a guessing game. Name this filmmaker, born in summer 1970, whose debut film released in the US in 1997. Too little info? Ok, here’s another clue. His most recent film was a biopic of a scientist, who is shown to be at Princeton University early in the film. Getting warm, are we? Here’s the final clue: the movie was about the scientist’s biggest contribution to his country and about the same country then accusing him of espionage. Now, guess! Filmmaker and film.

If you guessed Christopher Nolan and Oppenheimer, hurray! 50 points to Gryffindor!

If you also guessed R Madhavan and Rocketry, double hurray! 100 points to Slytherin! (Snape rocks, yo!)

It shouldn’t be surprising or strange that two films about two scientists, from two continents, made in two languages, released in two successive summers, should have an identical storyline. You know that thing, right, about how there’s only seven stories in the universe. (If you don’t, here’s the Wikipedia link. 

Now, I’ll be honest, neither Oppenheimer nor Rocketry fit any one of those seven stories. They both contain five of them— There’s a voyage and return where a student turns into a scientist. Then we have a quest where the hero along with his fellow scientists create a technology against all odds. But then the heroes confront tragedy in the name of an interrogation. That’s followed by an overcoming of a (legal) monster that helps absolve them, and finally the rebirth into a celebrated scientist. 

If you think that’s a lot for a single film to throw together, and the film would have been better served with a more focused narrative, then you might find yourself in agreement with our friendly neighborhood reviewer, whose criticism, if I may be allowed to surmise, is that both these biopics needed to be less bio and more pics

To varying degrees, I enjoyed watching both of these films, and they do offer vastly different experiences. But what turned out to be much fun later was playing a spot the similarities game between them. And seeing as to how much they have in common, I think there’s an “Avatar=Vietnam Colony” type Naan Karthik video waiting to be made. But, I, Karthik, don’t make videos, and this written version will have to do.

Spoilers Ahead for Oppenheimer (and Rocketry)

The Trinity

Rule one of screenwriting is the Rule of Three: every story is divided into three parts, or three acts. It’s true of most films, and it’s true of biopics too. Take Social Network, it had three legal proceedings, the Harvard Admin Board, the Winklevii lawsuit and Eduardo Saverin lawsuit. Or take Steve Jobs, it had three product launches, Macintosh, NeXT and iMac. There’s three acts in Oppenheimer and Rocketry too, and I’d like to call them Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu. 

In Brahma, we have the act of creation, there’s the creation of a genius— our protagonists earn their stripes as scientists. And then there’s the centerpiece, the creation of a technology— the atomic bomb and the rocket engine, and in this process we have the creation of these men’s legacies.  

In Shiva, we have an act to destroy, the witch hunt that dragged down the men’s reputation, and tarnished their legacy. Both our protagonists face a false accusation, try to defend themselves in a misinformed interrogation, which happens being closed doors. They survive this act, battered and bruised (literally in Nambi’s case). In the end, Oppie loses his security clearance, and Nambi any chance of furthering his career at ISRO. 

Finally, in Vishnu, we have an act to preserve the scientists’ legacies, as the perpetrators are brought to their knees. In Oppenheimer, Lewis Strauss is exposed as the lead conspirer and his fall from grace happens in full public display. In Rocketry, we have movie stars Suriya/Shah Rukh, verbally resurrecting Nambi’s legacy piece by piece in full public display, and in the end, they are literally on their knees offering an apology on behalf of the people.

Both films dont adopt a linear storyline, resorting to time shifts across these three acts. There’s a lot of time shifts in Steve Jobs and Social Network too, but their three acts, for the most part, play out in sequence.  

Newton’s Third Law

Karma is key to the design of both movies. Action and retribution, guilt and repentance are themes that connect a lot of the events in these films. But just looking at the way these two scientists rise and fall in the films, one might say that a karmic force played a cruel joke on them. 

Look at the first half of Nambi’s/Oppie’s story in Rocketry/Oppenheimer. We have the scientists toying with physical systems, maneuvering different people, all in the name of accomplishing a mission. Now look at the second half of that story, a legal system is toying with the scientists, interrogators were maneuvered with the sole aim to bring them down.

In Rocketry, a key plot point was how Nambi and his colleagues conspired to get data from French scientists by stress testing the French Viking engine. We see Nambi revel in torturing the engine to its breaking point until the French scientists give up the data. But later, as we all know, Nambi himself was beaten and tortured, to within an inch of his life, to admit to treason. But Nambi, just like the Indian Vikas engine, survives the stress test without giving up. 

In Oppenheimer, the key to building the bomb was to create a controlled chain reaction. Subatomic particles whose states are uncertain needed to be manipulated just enough to create an explosion without igniting the atmosphere. Thats what Oppie managed to achieve with his team. Now, what happened to Oppie later flips this script where his interrogation turned out to be another kind of controlled chain reaction. Witnesses whose opinions were uncertain needed to be manipulated just enough to bring down his reputation without any greater repercussion. In a further case of truth being stranger than fiction, the outcome of his inquisition was in the hands of three neutral judges, just like the outcome of the U-235 fission reaction lay in the actions of three neutrons released from the atom.

A question of faith

The most mesmerizing moment in Oppenheimer happens in silence, in darkness, till a burst of light with the energy trapped inside minuscule atoms manifest in a massive mushroom cloud. It’s a moment that Oppie chose to quote, from the Bhagavad Gita, a verse spoken at the very moment that Arjuna witnesses his Lord’s Viswaroopam. 

What caused Oppie to recall that quote at that time? Was it a moment of arrogance that he had now channeled the power of the Gods? Was it a reflection of the same fear and awe that Arjuna might have felt on witnessing the power of his Lord? 

Or was it an expression of that quiver of faith that allowed him to unleash a power that even science could not fully ascertain? 

In Rocketry, the parallel to the Trinity test is the stress testing of the Vikas rocket engine. There too we have a tense situation, where a wager is jokingly placed on the engine’s failure (a wager was placed as a joke around the Trinity test too). We see Nambi push the engine to its limits, beyond what his fellow scientists had imagined. All through, when the camera focuses on Nambi, we see the kunkumam mark shine on his forehead. Much later when Nambi learns that his ordeal with the law is finally over, we see the mark big and bright. 

Even without the symbolism, there is, of course, no question about Nambi’s faith. The movie opens with the Suprabhatam, and as the camera pans all the way to Nambi’s house, we see him finishing his prayers. All through the film, we see him openly and repeatedly call to his Goddess Bhagavati. 

But then, in a cruel twist of fate, the most devastating moment of Nambi’s life happens when he is at a temple. 

God does not play

Early in Rocketry, a beloved father figure for modern India, Abdul Kalam, makes an appearance as a quirky young scientist. He’s staring at a glass box with the look of a curious child waiting for a Diwali cracker to explode. But then we see this was no game, and if not for Nambi’s timely intervention at that moment, the explosion might have seriously wounded Kalam.  

Kalam, in that early scene, expresses strong reservations against Nambi’s push for liquid propulsion. In a moment of strange irony, he scoffs at using the missile implications to move forward with a technology far advanced than what ISRO was building. But we see the closure of this thread much later when Nambi pushes for an even bigger leap in technology, and he’s patched through to an older Kalam. This is the Abdul Kalam we recognize, the man whose look and stature reminds us of what made him the “people’s president.” We see this Kalam use his gravitas as DRDO chief to allow Nambi to bring a cryogenic engine to India. 

In Oppenheimer, it’s Albert Einstein who’s words carry a gravitas, as the most celebrated scientist, and a man who, in public perception, is forever synonymous with genius. But when a young Oppie first talks about Einstein, we see a bit of mockery at Einstein’s comment that “God does not play dice.” Einstein’s reluctance to accept the probabilistic view of quantum physics is well known. When Oppie reaches out to him about the chance that the atomic bomb might ignite the sky, Einstein pushes back, saying “this is on you.” 

But then in the movie’s most pivotal moment, when Oppie is grappling with the actual power and the danger of his weapon, it’s Einstein’s words that allows him to come to terms with both his accomplishment and his guilt. Einstein’s aging voice has a determinism and wisdom that gives perspective to all the uncertainty that’s dogged Oppie.

The Devil’s Own

Okay, this is the last parallel, I promise. Oppenheimer clearly identifies who the villain of the story is. An entire thread focuses on Lewis Strauss and his eventual rejection by the senate chamber. The irony of the story though is that, for a man who’s greatest motivation to spearhead the Manhattan project was anti-Semitism (“It’s my people who are being herded into those camps.”), Oppie ended up being betrayed by a fellow Jew, a man with an interest in physics. Strauss’s actions were portrayed as an act of vindictiveness since Oppie had refused to go along with his ideas.

While Rocketry doesn’t expose any villains in Nambi’s case, it does point its finger at a character named Barry Amaldev, who is also a man of Indian origin, and a fellow rocket scientist. Here too there is an implication that Barry’s was an act of vindictiveness since Nambi had refused his offer to work with him for NASA.

Sorry, one last thing..

Both movies end with their protagonists receiving a prestigious award. along with an implication that the awards are only partly a recognition of their scientific contribution, and partly they are a compensation to overcome the collective guilt of a community.

Now that Rocketry has won the National award for feature films this year, let’s end with another guessing game. Next year, at this time, this film and filmmaker would have won the Academy Award for feature films. Now, guess! Filmmaker and Film?

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