August 23, 2013
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Though Madras Cafe is replete with historical references and rich in detail right down to reminding us of the tennis shoes Rajiv wore on that fateful day, it’s important to stress that it is not a documentary.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):
2 hours 10 minutes
Photograph courtesy: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Madras_Cafe