Madras Cafe

Madras Cafe

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.



Imtiaz Ali’s involvement persuaded me that Rockstar would be worth seeing despite my reservations about Ranbir Kapoor (I’m still bitter after enduring Saawariya and Bachna Ae Haseena). Plus I had a free pass, and a few hours to kill.

There are some things that are outstanding. The visual design, sets and locations are beautiful. I loved the scenes at the Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah with their beautiful lighting and haunting music, and Ranbir shone in those introspective moments. The songs, which I didn’t particularly like before seeing the film, work a treat. The music and lyrics extend the story and characters, and so do the picturisations. I misted up a little seeing Shammi Kapoor on a cinema screen for my first time. He is Ustad Jameel Khan, a renowned musician who supports and mentors Ranbir’s character. There is a sweet scene as they ‘duet’ on ‘The Dichotomy of Fame’ and I don’t think Ranbir had to try hard to look like he was moved too.

There were even some ridiculous and some beautiful costumes so I was pleased on both counts.

But there are some significant problems, most of which stem from the writing and direction.

Ranbir is Janardhan aka JJ aka Jordan. He is supposed to be a simple innocent boy but comes across as socially retarded, he is a misfit in his slap-happy family, and drifting through college. He is a musician but is told that until he has suffered he can’t be great. JJ decides to fall for the college hot chick so she can break his heart. Despite the stupid premise that manufactured pain equals great art, the dialogue in these early scenes is quite funny and flows well. Eventually JJ and Heer (Nargis Fakhri) become friends. JJ is by turns clueless and a bit manipulative – on the one hand taking Heer too literally at times, but then admitting he fakes being drunk when he goes out partying. They sneak into a tacky soft porn flick, get drunk, and generally work through Heer’s idea of a bucket list before she marries and relocates to Prague.

Jordan, as he is now known, becomes increasingly famous and unhappy.

Ranbir tries, maybe too hard, to break from his usual lightweight charmer persona and is mostly surly. Imtiaz Ali wants us to find Jordan sympathetic but I couldn’t after a point. While I get that he is supposed to be inarticulate away from his music, Jordan is a self absorbed and often aggressive man. Jordan realises he is in love with Heer for real. Kicked out of his unhappy home, and down on his luck, he stays at the dargah. Thrown a life line by college canteen manager Mr Khatana and Ustad Jameel Khan, he is signed by Platinum Records boss Mr Dhingra (Piyush Mishra). With his success growing, Jordan negotiates a gig at a very fake looking Eurojam music festival in Prague – what a coincidence.

He pursues Heer and will not take no for an answer. To be fair, she is sending very mixed signals but it is all about what Jordan wants. He doesn’t exactly force her, but he refuses to accept her ‘No’ and is aggressive in his pursuit. He has no concern about her marriage other than how it gets in his way. Heer succumbs and they have an affair which doesn’t end well. His declarations of love were all about his feelings and desires, how he needed her to make him happy and complete.










Even his band was just a bunch of shadowy blokes up the back of the stage – there was no creative dynamic, no camaraderie. Separated from Heer, Jordan descends further into his morass of self pity and destructive behaviour.

Maybe his vile gold brocade dinner jacket was a sign. They certainly interpreted Rockstar as ‘someone with no dress sense’. JJ wears simple jeans and kurtas when he is with Heer, but gets a bit late era George Harrison meets Frank Zappa on his own. Was that meant to prove he needed her to be a good boy (and remember to wash his hair)? Ranbir did well with the physical transformation of Jordan and his best scenes were probably in the songs where he could just be the Rockstar, demanding the spotlight yet still showing ambivalence about fame and success.

Heer is self absorbed and indecisive, creating most of her own problems. She not only jeopardises her marriage, she is also afflicted with a blood disorder and told she will die. Of course the only cure is Jordan’s Magical Healing Cock. Yes, a doctor may despair but shagging Jordan is all it takes to restore her vitality. Well, until she is further punished for her transgressions by being separated from Jordan (and his MHC) and being made dangerously ill by the resulting pregnancy. Ah the wages of sin. When she collapses, her mother’s reaction is to scream for someone to call Jordan! Yes – like a quickie in the emergency ward would cure Heer. Nargis Fakhri was out of her depth once the love story took centre stage, although her scene joking about eloping with JJ before her wedding was funny and poignant. Heer needed a bit more oomph, less shrieking in place of emoting, and better writing. I’m trying not to mention her collagen plumped lips but they do arrive in shot before the rest of her face a few times, and may contribute to her inability to articulate the dialogue.

Filmi clichés abound, and some are quite clumsy.  If you’re going to hire someone who can’t dance, why introduce them as college hot chick by staging a dance show? There was another misstep with a ’tribute’ to Shammi in Kashmir where Ranbir showed he really doesn’t have any of the panache of his uncle.

The arena style gigs looked good even if Ranbir’s guitar was never plugged in, and the audiences were too well behaved. But then there was no sense of how Jordan created – we see him listening attentively to all these influences and then songs just emerge fully formed.  I would have liked to see more attention given to the musician rather than just worshipping the performer. It might have made Jordan more interesting or likeable.

Had it been a study of the effects of fame on an artist, this might have been compelling. The love story that is supposed to be the core of this film left me cold. I don’t feel I have enough understanding of Rumi to make an informed comment, but my gut reaction was that Imtiaz Ali has missed the point of the quotes he used in his film. I don’t recall Rumi defining love as possession, and that is what this story does. The early friendship is enjoyable, if very unlikely, but just when I should have been wanting them to get together I started to think the opposite. And there are so few other characters in the film to give any relief from this pair. Even the end credits bunch people into his family, her friends, his band…it is all about Jordan and to a lesser extent, Heer. So if you don’t care for their grand romance what else do you have?

The audience I saw the film with was small – maybe 50 people. Several didn’t come back after intermission, and another dozen or so crept out during the second half. Their only cheers were reserved for Shammi-ji and AR Rahman and I think that was about right. Rockstar had a lot of great ingredients, but I was left thinking that with less indulgent writing, a different focus and a bit more editing, it could have been so much better.