Madras Cafe

[Cast: John Abraham, Nargis Fakhri, Rashi Khanna, Siddharth Basu; Music: Shantanu Moitra; Direction: Shoojit Sircar]


In the film ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,’ there’s a line; a reporter says, ‘This is the Wild West my friend. When truth and myth contradicts, we print the myth.’

There’s this problem with making biographies or political films in India. You can’t name real people. All our popular personalities are surrounded by so much of an aura, so much of myth that it is often difficult to face the truth. So in our films Dhirubai Ambani becomes Gurukanth Desai and MGR becomes Anandan. So in Madras Café, a political thriller about the events leading up to the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, LTTE becomes LTF, Veluppillai Prabhakaran becomes Anna Bhaskaran and Rajiv Gandhi is not named at all, but is simply referred to as Ex-PM. That’s a bit jarring because the references are unmistakeable. There is civil war in Sri Lanka, there is peace accord between India and Sri Lanka promoted by the youngest prime minster of India. A peace-keeping force is sent to Sri Lanka. All Tamil militant groups surrender arms; all but one. And the Indian PM wants the provincial elections to be held in the Northern Sri Lanka before Diwali. It is so transparent and it is a bit difficult to understand why Shoojit Sircar has even bothered with fictitious names! Perhaps he had hoped that with the change of names, he can somehow get a wide release in Tamil Nadu. It shows how much he has underestimated the stupidity of, us, Tamils.

Even in the film, Sircar is not interested in the politics behind the assassination, and even shows only a passive, existential concern towards the war behind it. He thinks he can extract a ‘thriller’ element out of this story. But he does not identify the villains and refuses to paint them grey. Hence, there’s this token statement ‘One man’s revolutionary is another’s terrorist,’ about Anna, the Prabhakaran character. The so-called Tamil protesters who succeeded in banning the film in Tamil Nadu should have taken refuge under this statement. Clearly they haven’t bought it.

What lacks in clear characterisation, Sircar tries to make up with fast-paced, spy-thriller editing. The film cuts across various places, times, and people. Average shot length plummets to almost nothing. Frames zip past so fast that it makes MTV videos appear like ‘art films’. That works to some extent in keeping your attention alive. And you’re willing to cut some slack for the director for the fact that no one has ever tried to make a film out of one of the most important events in our modern history; an assassination that changed the face of India forever. Yes, that is admirable no doubt and also there is clear evidence of skilled craft. Sircar has also kept the focus on the action without any usual Indian deviation of romance angle, songs, and god forbid, ‘a comedy track’. So you feel like you’re watching an Indian version of 24.

But something, something is missing somewhere. Perhaps, because of his need to keep the pace alive, Sircar does not let you spend time with any single character. Even Vikram, played ably by John Abraham, remains one-dimensional and his alcoholism doesn’t even get a pedestrian sympathy from us. Others too come and go in the hurried drama towards the all too well known climax. The only character we feel for is the ‘Ex PM’, that too because we know it is Rajiv Gandhi and we know that he really died the way portrayed in the film and, we achingly realise that, if he had not died, he would have solved the Sri Lankan problem and put an end to the menace called Prabhakaran, and also, of course transformed India. In his death, he left India floundering politically for a decade and allowed that evil war lord acquire prominence thereby wreaking havoc in northern Sri Lanka. If not for anything else, this film is worth watching because we need to remind ourselves of this fact. ‘He may be right or wrong, I don’t care, but I lost my prime minister, that’s what matters to me.’ The John Abraham character says in the end. I disagree with him a bit. I would have said ‘He (Anna) is unmistakably evil, because he killed my prime minster.’ It is bit of a shame that a movie about Tamil’s ethnic conflict has to be made by a Bengali and, worse, has to be banned in Tamil Nadu. It is such an important history in India and leaving everything aside, Sircar and John Abraham need to be commended for daring to make a film out of it. Don’t miss it.