I’m not normally a fan of films that deal with the subject of war, but I found the combination of Shoojit Sircar as director and the backdrop of the conflict in Sri Lanka intriguing enough to warrant watching Madras Cafe. The film is a world away from his last film, Vicky Donor, but Shoojit Sircar shows a similar attention to detail in this realistic and gritty political thriller. The film begins with a disclaimer which states that Madras Cafe is a work of fiction, but even with the little I know about the Indian involvement in the Sri Lankan conflict, the story seems heavily influenced by real-life events of the time. The story deals with the build-up to the assassination of the Indian ex-Prime Minister and owes more to Hollywood drama than the more usual Bollywood tale of an Indian army hero who single-handedly saves the day. As a bonus, John Abraham is more convincing than expected in the lead role and his performance, along with some excellent cinematography make Madras Cafe well worth a watch.
The first half of the film sets up the story, starting with a fairly graphic depiction of the atrocities committed against the Tamil people leading eventually to the development of armed resistance. It is at times confusing as numerous characters are briefly introduced before the action moves quickly along, but once the whole cast is assembled the story settles down to describe the events leading up to the Prime Minister’s resignation and eventual death. John Abraham plays the role of Major Vikram Singh, a RAW agent sent to Sri Lanka to ensure elections to secure the peace process go ahead. To this end he has two aims, to move support away from the head of the Tamil Liberation Force (LTF) and instead to promote the more acceptable (to India) Shri, leader of the Tamil political party TPA.
The LTF is led by the charismatic Anna Bhaskaran (Ajay Ratnam), who is ably supported by his inner cadre of Pandyan (Johnson Manjali), his Intel chief; Mallya (Arijit Dutta), deputy leader and army commander; and Rajasekharan (Dinesh Nair), spokesperson and arms dealer. Vikram manages to meet up with Shri (Kannan Arunachalam), who demands weapons for the fight against the LTF, but the mission to deliver these goes wrong and the weapons end up in the hands of the rebel force. Vikram suspects that someone in the Indian RAW group has betrayed them, and so begins a cat and mouse game to identify the traitor while attempting to keep the peace process on track. During his mission Vikram meets Jaya (Nargis Fakhri), an American journalist based in London, who is in Jaffna to report on the plight of the refugees. Jaya has a number of informers and sources, who later prove important contact points for Vikram, but otherwise her role seems fairly pointless and not helped by Nargis’s lacklustre performance. The initial meeting between Jaya and Vikram suggested that there may be some conflict between the two over nationalism and journalistic integrity, but this never materialised, perhaps because there is already plenty of conflict onscreen.
While the traitor is still providing the rebels with details about the Indian army plans, Vikram’s colleague S.P. (Rajeev K. Panday) intercepts wireless transmissions that provide details of an LTF plot to kill the former Indian Prime Minister during his campaign for re-election. The assassination plot is developed during meetings between Anna’s representative Rajasekharan and nameless Western corporate executives who meet in the Madras Cafe. The last half hour of the film moves into overdrive as the clock ticks down and Vikram and his boss Robin Dutt (Siddartha Basu) desperately try to put all the pieces together before their time runs out.
The screenplay by Somnath Dey and Shubendu Bhattacharya is realistic and gripping, even if you don’t know much about the original story – in fact it may be better if you don’t. Excellent performances by most of the lead actors, including Prakash Belawadi as Bala, the Indian head of operations in Sri Lanka help to paint a plausible picture of the events leading up to the final assassination. The pace does pick up in the final half hour although in general the film is kept understated, with a subdued performance from John Abraham, suiting his role as an undercover agent. He’s perhaps a little too muscular and brawny to be 100% convincing, as I expect undercover agents to be more wiry and less memorable, but his mannerisms and emotions are much better than his previous films and seem fitting for an army officer. At least there is none of the dreadful melodrama and over the top emoting which often seem to be required for a ‘hero’ role.
On the other hand Nargis Fakhri seems completely miscast and never convinces as a war reporter, while her appearance seems even more outlandish than in Rockstar. Rashi Khanna does a better job in her role as Vikram’s wife and the large supporting cast all are well suited to their roles with some excellent individual performances from the various cabinet members, Sanjay Gurbaxani as the Prime Minister and the members of the LTF cell in Madras.
The film looks beautiful despite the subject matter, and the cinematography by Kamaljeet Negi is superb. There are contrasts between shots of beautiful countryside and scenes of complete devastation caused by the conflict. The framing is excellent and often characters are shown hemmed in by their surroundings, just another way of showing there is no escape from the consequences of war. My only complaint is that the same two helicopters seem to make their way into a few too many shots, but since I always associate the sound of a helicopter with an army presence (from my childhood growing up in Northern Ireland) this just added more realism for me.
There are no songs as such in the film, but the background score by Shantanu Moitra is hauntingly beautiful and fits the imagery well.
Madras Cafe is not a film for everyone and at times is more of a documentary than a drama, however the subtle build-up of tension and attention to detail make for compelling viewing – even if I kept thinking that surely an undercover operative in Jaffna would speak Tamil! A beautifully shot and well-made film, Madras Cafe is a fictional account that aptly illustrates the horror of conflict and the civilian cost. 4 stars.