Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Read between the lines: Madras Cafe

There are difficulties in making a political thriller based on true incidents from history. Movies like 'Hidden Agenda' (1990), 'Death of a President' (2006), 'The Ghost Writer' (2010), 'Raajneeti' (2010) and 'Shanghai' (2012) have faced such issues. Matters become more difficult if the movie addresses a delicate and complex situation which is still a topic of concern. John Abraham's ambitious production, Shoojit Sircar's 'Madras Cafe' has taken on and triumphed most of these challenges.

A deeper conspiracy

Abraham takes on the role of Major Vikram Singh, an Indian RAW (Research and Analysis Wing) agent who is put in charge of all the covert operations in the North of Sri Lanka. His mission is to gather all the Tamil militant groups, convince them to give up arms and compete in the North East provincial council elections.

The situation turns sour when Anna Bhaskaran, commander of the LTF (Liberation of Tamils Front), refuses to comply and is willing to militarily confront the Indian forces. A chance meeting with journalist Jaya Sahni changes the course of Singh's life. The story unfolds as their quest for the truth reveals a deeper conspiracy. Singh faces the horrors of personal loss and gets the opportunity to spearhead a mission to prevent a crime which would bring great tragedy to his nation.

Though nearly half of the incidents in the movie take place in Sri Lanka, the viewpoint and actions of the Sinhalese have been cut off from the story. It mainly focuses on the tug of war taking place between the rebels and the Indian authorities and follows in a style similar to what Ben Affleck dealt in his Oscar winning 'Argo', but with a more lethargic pace.

Even though the filmmakers have changed certain aspects like the characters, groups and logos involved in the incident it is clear that the film revolves around the Rajiv Gandhi assassination. The LTF is actually the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Eelam) and Anna Bhaskaran is LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran.

A timely interrogation

One of the most powerful lines occurs at the end of the movie. A melancholic Singh notes, "They were powerful. In this game, we lost our prime minister, and the Lankan Tamils, their future." There are no accusatory fingers of injustice and human rights violations. Therefore the guard can be let down in enjoying 'Madras Cafe.' Though the film seems to be about loss on the surface it has the theme of recovery also embedded in it. It is a vehicle which takes us back to visit a historic incident between two countries and to question certain aspects during the time.

These incidents are of vital importance but certain parties have tried to camouflage it to legitimize the acts terrorism in recent times. Therefore this movie comes as a timely interrogation for them to revive their memories of the horrors of a forgotten past. One of the problematic areas of the film is as to why it is named 'Madras Cafe'. Titling the project after an imaginary setting in which secret arms deals are made and assignation plots are hatched seems a lame. It would have been a crowd puller if they had given it a more appropriate title. Most of the scenes in the film are bleak. The incidents are not fast pacing or aesthetically enriching. Therefore it can be tiresome to watch.

A brave attempt

Another downside of the production is that it has many ambiguous areas which should have been brought to light. One such incident is linked with why the LTF decided to kill 'a former Indian prime minister', Rajiv Gandhi being the real life figure in this case. Though the assignation was done by the LTF, it is also hinted that it is the result of the of bigger nations' need to have influence over the Trincomalee harbour. Such an incident has been dramatized by Sircar by using a white man with an American accent who disregards supporting Sri Lanka in their fight against terrorists. Some of the episodes can be difficult to follow or confusing for viewers unless they are aware of the history of the incident. John Abraham stays low key yet gives a convincing performance as Singh. This is a refreshing change for the actor who is known for action-packed roles rather than for serious acting.

Nargis Fakhri who plays journalist Jaya Sahni is a poor representation of British war correspondent Anita Pratap. Her dialogs in English with Abraham replying in Hindi seem out place in the setup. She has to brush up her acting prowess since she did not do much but look pretty in her debut, Imtiaz Ali's 'Rockstar' as well. Rashi Khanna who does the supporting role as Singh's wife Ruby gives a better performance compared to the one-film-old Fakhri. Though some have accused the director of distorting facts, 'Madras Cafe' leaves many things unsaid rather than hands everything on a platter to its viewers. Read between the lines when you watch this movie. It may be flawed in certain areas but it is an ambitious and brave attempt. 

Ruwini Jayawardana