Friday, August 23, 2013


Release date:
August 23, 2013
Shoojit Sircar


John Abraham, Nargis Fakhri, Siddhartha Basu, Raashi Khanna, Prakash Belawadi, Ajay Ratnam, Piyush Pandey, Avijit Dutt, Dibang
Hindi, Tamil, English

If you are looking for John Abraham taking off his shirt in a political thriller infused with song and dance, if you are keen on decibel levels raised to needlessly over-dramatise intrinsically melodramatic situations, then this is not the film for you. Madras Café is what D-Day might have been if Nikhil Advani had reined himself in just that little bit. This is a fictionalised account of Indian intelligence-gathering and other covert operations involving the LTTE (called LTF in the film) in the couple of years running up to the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi (called “ex-PM” here) and centred around an imagined RAW operative Vikram Singh (John).

Santosh Sivan’s The Terrorist and Mani Ratnam’s Kannathil Muthamittal are perhaps the foremost Indian films to have covered the LTTE so far. Both were lovely but different from this one, more emotional and novel-esque. Madras Café’s near-unflinching, near-newspaper-like matter-of-factness is its strength. It goes quietly from Point A to Point B to Point C the way real life does, underlining the unrelenting, risky and thankless nature of the espionage agent’s work. It does this without glamourising spies as Hollywod does. Vikram Singh is no James Bond, nor Ethan Hunt from the MI series. He is a real man with real vulnerabilities. He is brave but not without fear; he even has nightmares when he returns from a war zone. He does not drink martinis “shaken not stirred”; he’s just a human being who’s shaken and stirred. This then is Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination seen through the eyes of Vikram. He doesn’t know for sure that it will happen; we do. It is to director Shoojit Sircar’s credit that the film remains compelling right till the end even though we all know what’s coming.

Though Madras Cafe is replete with historical references and rich in detail right down to reminding us of the tennis shoes Rajiv wore on that fateful day, it’s important to stress that it is not a documentary. Blending fact with fiction in the manner it does is rarely-charted territory for Bollywood but Shoojit manages well. The film is based on the premise that Rajiv was killed by a shadowy network involving Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers and global forces opposed to the late Indian prime minister’s efforts to find a peaceful political solution to the Lankan civil war. Now this may bother you if you are not inclined to take such a kind view of Rajiv especially since the film fails to mention the irony that Indira Gandhi’s and Rajiv’s regimes had played a role in nurturing the nascent LTTE. So the key to enjoying Madras Café is to accept that history is always someone’s version of events. Let’s also be clear, this film is not about Rajiv; he is merely on the sidelines here, as Vikram doggedly goes about his business.

Shoojit and Madras Café’s writers (story and screenplay: Somnath Dey and Shubendu Bhattacharya, dialogues: Juhi Chaturvedi) rarely abandon the tone of detachment in their narration. Some problems merit a mention though: the flashback device used to tell us the story – Vikram Singh recounting those years to a priest in a church – didn’t work for me and led to some of the film’s very few less-than-true-to-life moments, including Vikram walking into the camera quoting Tagore’s Gitanjali. There is also one awkward scene with Vikram’s boss’ wife (played by Ruma Ghosh) in which she sheds tears over the ex-PM’s assassination and asks: What was his fault? Nowhere else does Madras Café appear to deify Rajiv, which makes this maudlin moment rather jarring, especially considering the tricky political questions involved.

The casting is unconventional. John surrenders his sex-bomb image to this role, and delivers a convincing performance. It’s been a pleasure watching this man grow as an actor in the past 10 years. His Vikram is surrounded by interesting actors playing well-written characters, each memorable despite brief appearances: TV producer and 1980s telequiz host Siddhartha Basu as Vikram’s boss Robin Dutt, model Raashi Khanna as Vikram’s wife Ruby, adman Piyush Pandey as the Indian Cabinet Secretary, former Aaj Tak journalist Dibang as an unnamed figure in Bangkok, among others. All the actors playing Tamil militants are believable as is journalist-and-theatre-artiste Prakash Belawadi in the role of troubled RAW honcho Bala. One sore point: Gayathri Devarajan in a few-seconds-long appearance as Bala’s wife. Nargis Fakhri doesn’t particularly enrich her role as London-based war correspondent Jaya Sahni and seems to have been cast for her foreign accent, but to be fair to Shoojit, he does control her bobbing head and pouting lips unlike Imtiaz Ali who directed her debut Hindi film Rockstar.

Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty comes to mind in the context of Madras Café, as does David Fincher’s Zodiac and several other Hollywood crime and political dramas that have aimed at a near-documentary feel. Indian film makers tend to avoid recent history and current events because of our political class’ penchant for bowing to violence-prone religious and political groups. That’s why in Madras Café we get LTF’s Anna Bhaskaran (Ajay Ratnam) who just happens to bear a striking facial resemblance to LTTE’s V. Prabhakaran. That’s why Rajiv Gandhi can’t be called Rajiv Gandhi and we must suffer the strain of hearing character after character refer to him as just “ex-PM” in a way you know real people would not. That Madras Café has pulled off what it has done despite these constraints is laudable.

John in particular must be applauded for picking unusual projects as a producer (Vicky Donor – also directed by Shoojit – was his first, this is his second). Kudos too to him for taking a strong stand against those protesting the release of Madras Cafe. I can imagine where the BJP’s opposition is coming from: either they are pandering to extremist Tamil sentiments or, with just months to go for the next general election, they’re uncomfortable with a film that takes a positive view of a Congress leader. The ban demand by Tamil groups is inexplicable though. Their complaint seems to be that LTTE has been portrayed as terrorists in this film. Err… LTTE is shown assassinating a former Indian PM in this film. You mean it did not?!

In fact, the two primary takeaways from Madras Café are: (a) innocent civilians are always the first to suffer in violent conflict situations, and (b) “one man’s revolutionary is another man’s terrorist.” Both are thoughts articulated by Vikram Singh who even refers to Anna Bhaskaran as an “idealist” at one point. Elsewhere Dibang’s character says: “Har kisi ka apna sach hota hai, depends on where you are standing.” What more do LTTE sympathisers want?

Despite some of its questionable politics, Madras Café pulsates with life, a realistic feel and a sense of danger at every turn. The locations are spectacular but DoP Kamaljeet Negi does not try merely to overwhelm us with their beauty; with art director Vinod Kumar and music director Shantanu Moitra as his co-conspirators, he uses his camera to build up the atmosphere of the hazardous world inhabited by Vikram. As I sat watching the film in that darkened hall, there was a point at which Vikram’s shoes became my own, when I began to dread the perils dogging him. I can’t think of a better compliment than that for Shoojit Sircar’s Madras Café.

Rating (out of five): ***1/2

CBFC Rating (India):
Running time:
2 hours 10 minutes


  1. Good objective review.I liked the expression"History is always someone’s version of events". The length of the film being 100 minutes,I feel it must be fairly fast paced.

  2. nice review...and when I watch such films I and read about the call for bans...I only think of all the lost opportunities of good movies on our history..political or else...good work by John on backing the movie...I felt that may be if the lead actor was someone else it could have been better...but still no complaints...and you might want to correct the run time..its 2 hours 10 mins I think...

    1. Dear Pankaj,

      I got the running time of the film off the Censor certificate so it's 100% confirmed :) Thanks for taking the trouble to write to me though. And yes, you are right, bans on such films prompted by opportunistic political, social and religious organisations are a lost opportunity for viewers.


      Anna MM Vetticad

    2. I think censor board got it wrong. I have checked on book my show and imdb too , also by the time of the start of show till I reach back home, am sure it was over 2 hrs. Tweet review timings on ibn live also indicate the same. :-)

    3. Dear Pankaj,

      The CBFC certificate was sent to me by the film's PR agency - I'd assume they would have told me if the Board had committed such a huge error (and getting the running time wrong by 30 minutes definitely counts as a huge error). Since it's not possible for me to actually sit and count the number of minutes for which the film ran (which would require me to actually track the length of the interval, the pre-film trailers, etc) I have to trust them.

      Having said that, since you seem so convinced, I would have definitely re-checked the running time with the agency if I felt 1 hour 40 minutes was unreasonable, but it sounds just about right - the film didn't feel long to me, and matches your own experience of having watched it: if a film is 1 hour 40 minutes, add the interval time to it and it will of course be over 2 hours between the start of the film and the time you got home.

      Hope this sets your mind at rest :)



    4. Dear Pankaj,

      Your persistence prompted me to go back to the CBFC certificate for the nth time. Turns out I made a mistake. The film is 2 hours and 10 minutes long (that's 130 minutes). I have no idea how I read that as 1 hour 40 minutes or how I missed it each time I went back to look at the certificate after receiving your messages here.

      My apologies to any reader who may have made plans based on the running time given by me. Thank you for your vigilance. I have now made the necessary correction.


      Anna MM Vetticad

  3. This is a movie that as a viewer one can do justice only by watch it on a cinema's big canvas and not a laptop pc's screen

  4. Sometimes, you need a good director to extract out the best from an actor, who is praised for everything except acting skills. Madras Cafe has been made in such a way that it has extracted the best out of John, perhaps for the first time, who is often praised for his physique and looks rather than acting skills. Even, Nargis manages for deliver a good performance in this excellently told story. A must watch for the connoisseur of good movies make such bold subject oriented films succeed commercially as well, which are usually and unfortunately not given their due. Well done MC team!

  5. I think Shoojit did a pretty good job with a cast of average actors: John Abraham, Nargis, Siddharth Basu and for me worst of all, Prakash Belawadi. Prakash's dialogue delivery was pretty jarring. A kannadiga playing the role of a malayalee and speaking in Hindi.
    Shoojit seemed to work around the acting skills of his actors by taking out any melodrama, lest it fall apart. Good job, I say!

  6. Yes, the movie is Top notch..But it is not a "spy thriller" as it is marketed, but a thrilling docu-drama of the bloody end of RG. But the mood of the film is very suitable and treatment is excellent. It is John Abraham's best effort as an actor yet...
    On the down-side, it is One sided and reason for birth and growth of LTTE ( called LTF here )amongst Lankan Tamils who have been subjected to Lankan Govt's cruel ethnic policy and oppression has NOT been highlighted strangely. This could be the grouse of the Tamil groups opposing its release in TN and you cant grudge them that...This does to tend to upset the balance of the theme a bit as LTTE was also nurtured by Indian Govt esp by "EX-EX PMs" but it finally turned a Frankenstein's monster..
    My rating 3/5.