In the last scene of Madras Cafe, this week’s anticipated release, the lead character of the film recites a famous Rabindranath Tagore couplet that talks about a free nation. Save for this dramatic outburst, Shoojit Sircar’s fictionalized dramatization on the backdrop of real-life events in Madras Cafe, sticks to its guns and does not play to the gallery. With abundant political and social pressure condescending the controversial topics in India, Madras Cafe walks the thin line well enough, occasionally avoiding taking real names but largely showing gutsy monster balls to unravel a dark chapter in India’s history. Narratively viscous and skillfully told by Sircar, this one is a must watch for one and all, irrespective of your apprehensions and some shortcomings of the film itself.
Essentially, Madras Cafe is a two part film played out exactly like that. The first half focuses on the disturbed geopolitical situations of Sri Lanka in the mid 1980s and the Indian government’s failed attempts at peace keeping in the region. Crisp and relentless, MC throws us into a world of inquisition as it reveals the motives of each character amidst a troubled Jaffna, Sri Lanka, where the LTF (modeled on LTTE) led by Bhaskaran (alias for Prabhakaran) is battling it out against the Sinhalese government. Indian government decides to intervene amidst the mess via IPKF (Indian Peace Keeping Force) to conduct provincial elections on the island. On failure, they construct a covert operation via R&AW and send Vikram Singh (John Abraham) to Jaffna. After various failed attempts at lynching Bhaskaran through his friends and foes, they withdraw the forces, only leaving the LTF more powerful and dangerously revengeful. Here begins the conspiracy of the Rajiv Gandhi assassination by the LTF which is the core meat of the film and an eventuality around which the first half is built. Sircar lends a masterstroke docu-drama feel to the film.building upto the assassination step by step. Screenplay by Subhendhu Bhattacharya, Somnath Dey, Juhi Chaturvedi and Sircar himself adopts an approach wherein they believe more in showing all the cards than keeping them a suspense, but investing immensely in the detail of the execution of those known outcomes, following the lines of films like Zero Dark Thirty. Clinically avoiding any melodrama, the screenplay does not trivialize the motives of its characters and yet does not let the film get biased, preachy or sympathetically manipulative.
Engaging for almost all of its runtime, Madras Cafe is a well-written and directed product. However, and sadly enough, it is not free of faults. Chandrashekhar Prajapati’s editing is unfortunately uneven which does not pace the film out evenly. Some of the important plot points are whisked away in a short few mins while some others are re-iterated more than once, almost gearing towards redundancy. While the tone and mood of the film religiously stems away from the campy nature of Bollywood thrillers/espionage dramas, the hotch-potch pacing robs it of the striking impact of the final product. The next woe of this well-intentioned film is the large dosages of hammy acting, but more on that later. There is also an extrapolated explanation of the external funding of terrorist activities by global economic agents which looks oversimplified. Madras Cafe is a hard film to both write and shoot, with so much going on in it, and these afflictions do not really strip the film off its stunning effort at all.
Continuing the support to well-scripted films, John Abraham comes on board as the producer of Madras Cafe and provides it the significant backing it needed. Viacom 18 Motion Pictures and Rising Sun Films join hands to not let this one fall short of a single penny. Kamaljeet Negi’s cinematography is painstakingly real and effortlessly magnificent, a striking improvement from many previous attempts in this genre by others. Music by Shantanu Moitra has been used merely for promotional purposes and another pat on the back for Sircar and Abraham for not allowing a single song to hinder the narrative. The action and production design add to the gravel of the story without succumbing to even one gimmicky stunt or a leaking color.
John Abraham. So much respect for everything he is standing for via his production house. Bravo! We all know the guy cant act, well, atleast he cant deliver what a film of this nature would demand. But oh boy, he sweats every little pore of his brawn and muscle to do the best he can and believe me, he is far, very far from being bad. Relatively comfortable with the physicality of an undercover agent, Abraham displays wide range of anguish, pain, struggle and fight but shamefully hams while delivering most dialogues. Nargis Fakhri is well cast in a small role where she has to only speak in English and that she can very well. Rashi Khanna does not get much scope in this film but definitely has a flair for the screen. Siddhartha Basu, as the director of R&AW, should now be cast at Prithvi for their upcoming production. The guy is ludicrously theatrical. Piyush Pandey, as Cabinet secretary, and Ajay Rathnam (Bhaskaran) follow suit with Basu. Thanks to a Prakash Belawadi, essaying the role of Bala, the regional head of R&AW, that one of the important supporting characters is not offered to mediocrity.
On the whole, Madras Cafe is a very important film of our times. It marries fact and fiction well enough for you to pay for the ticket, let alone the seamless juxtaposition of an espionage story with a documentary-ish enactment of an assassination. The film has been sending the right signals from its first trailer release itself, despite carrying a lead cast which did not show much promise. But I would fathom that having to pick between a slightly inefficient cast and not making the film entirely, Sircar made the wise decision. The film has picked up business on Saturday and I hope the word of mouth gets it all the numbers it deserves. Nevertheless, it should not prune the spirit of Abraham and Sircar or any other filmmaker to make a daring film without the fear of comeuppance. Go out to a theater and support this one with all your heart!
Rating – 3.5/5