Madras Cafe - A Review

The first door-bell of the day had rung almost two hours earlier than usual that morning. It was still night-time, with the sun yet to rise at the horizon. My mother, still in her sleep, had opened the door to our cautious looking milkman. Upon being inquired as to why he had been so early today, he gave a single, crisp and wholesome response.

'Unhone Rajiv Gandhi ko maar dala..'
They have killed Rajiv Gandhi.

[Spoiler Alert! Mild, not explicit]

In his latest venture, film director Shoojit Sircar takes us back in time, zeroing in on one of the most infamous chapters in the history of India's politics and foreign policy - the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, the ex-prime minister of India. With 'Madras Cafe' the filmmaker certainly sets new standards for war/espionage/political thrillers in Bollywood. Personally I've had enough with the 100cr and 200cr family of mindless flicks, and its good to see someone who respects his audience and expects them to be both educated and informed.

Madras Cafe is an unrestrained account of what changed the political history of India. While it doesn't directly take names, it doesn't hold back on to anything either. The film, majorly shot in India and Sri Lanka (and Southeast Asia and London), is a political spy thriller set against the backdrop of the Sri Lankan civil war. Vikram Singh (John Abraham) is an Indian Army special officer who is appointed by the Indian intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), to conduct covert operations in Sri Lanka shortly after the Indian Peace Keeping Force is forced to withdraw. As he journeys to Jaffna, Sri Lanka, with the intention of facilitating the disarmament of the rebel group LTF, he discovers a larger issue, uncovering an insidious conspiracy.

I'll begin with the negative points of the movie first.

The movie starts a tad bit awkwardly, with an unnaturally disheveled John Abraham waking up from a nightmare. Its the bromidic kind of nightmare that the hardened army men in movies have to face as a rule. (Remember how it began with Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now?) And of course, he tries to drown his sorrows by consuming duty-free alcohol, the kind the army men get at subsidized rates from their cantonment canteens. The scene is rendered awkward, because John is made to accentuate on certain keywords (eminently 'A Conspiracy') in order to kick start the actual story, which is then told in flashback.

Dibang, the ex-Aaj Tak correspondent in real-life turned ex-RAW agent in reel-life (and an important source of information for the British-Indian journalist Jaya, played by Nargis Fakhri), is visibly awkward and conscious on screen. Although I understand they needed someone totally inconspicuous in that role, I don't quite get the point of choosing Dibang for the scene, him being so awkward. Nargis Fakhri was much better as Jaya than she was as Heer in Rockstar, primarily because her lines were written in English and required her to speak with an accent. But still, the way she speaks at times is too jarring for the big screen. She was good though, in her role.

The movie being extremely daring in itself, should have included more and could have gone the full distance. The alleged meetings at the Madras Cafe between the LTF correspondent, cleric Chandraswami (not mentioned) and other unknown foreign personnel could have been clarified. They could have tried entering uncharted territories seeking answers for why there were foreign interests and personal animosities involved in the assassination plot.

'Woh dekho... Conspiracy!'

Time for positives, as I've run out of negatives that stand out.

The story being real and as explosive as it could get, acting has been uncharacteristically restrained. In a good way. I enjoyed John for the first time in a long time. The only two movies I have ever liked him in were Taxi Number 9211 and No Smoking (a personal recommendation to everyone, watch it for the story; although try not to lose your head in the process). I've always had my doubts if he can turn his head sideways, thanks to all the beefed-up neck muscles. All hail steroids! But not just a good research, contemporary actors have stuck to adopting techniques as well. 'Intelligence officers are like normal people' said John, 'one who could disappear in the crowd easily' and so he loosened a bit to fit into the role of Vikram. Nice. The other actors were equally good, and the key supporting cast deserves special mentions. Ratnam, Arunachalam and Belwadi do a fairly convincing job while Siddhartha Basu appears comfortable in his role as the head of RAW.

Next up, editing (Chandrashekhar Prajapati) and cinematography (Kamaljeet Negi) of Madras Cafe were brilliant! I personally enjoyed the dialogues as well. Restrained. I was so glad when Vikram replied only with a curt 'thank you' when Jaya speaks to him on the phone 'I'm sorry to hear about your wife..' Impressively, his emotionally curbed voice did the rest. Sircar also chose not to use gore, which worked for the film boldly. Without much blood, the gun battles and killings became more emotional and mental than physical.

I loved how everyone stressed on the statement 'Keep me in the loop' as in the world of espionage, that becomes a major issue for the protagonist to think twice about after a while. Whom to trust and whom not to, who is selling secrets and who is secretly aiding him gets cloudy. All this have been brilliantly handled by Sircar.

Unlike many Bollywood movies that begin on a high but seem to fizz out in the second half leading to only a decent end, Madras Cafe does the opposite. Powerfully shot scenes of guerrilla warfare in the first half, remind one of Blood Diamond (2006), Green Zone (2010), The Killing Fields (1984) and Platoon (1986). Personal setbacks to clinical characters do not mandate melodrama in a movie of this genre, and Sircar has shown his worth on this matter. The second half gains significant pace as Vikram focuses on brain work, over some hard-boiled brawn work. I like the way they decoded those intercepts and assigning dual meaning to the cryptic messages was sheer genius.

Plus one to the background score by Shantanu Moitra and to that unknown Tamil song that was being played in the background, when Vikram reached Jaffna and was seen travelling on a public bus. Plus one again, to John's recitation of Tagore's Where the mind is without fear.

It was heart-breaking to see our protagonist fail in the end, even though we knew what was coming. We have all heard (or have witnessed) in some way, that dark account of personal and political vendetta, which still reminds us of our failures. This has always been one of the biggest conspiracy theories indigenous to India. The subsequent investigation commissions have even brought down at least one national government. Shoojit Sircar wisely chose a good story to immortalize on the big screen and did it enough justice, if not entirely.

Madras Cafe along with other movies which have come out in the recent past, once again confirms that Indian cinema is seeing a significant shift and the future seems only brighter for Indian movies in terms of global recognition and establishing a status of cinema not as mere entertainment but also as a respectful art form.

1 comment:

  1. I'm still looking for that Tamil song. I wonder what it is.