Well I am not exactly sure where to begin. It can be considered to be a minor success in itself on part of the filmmaker to get people confused. Anyways my confusion is partly because of the film and partly because of my personal memories associated with the events that it explores. In fact those are one of the most difficult memories from my childhood. I still vividly remember how that news broke, the mournful faces of the TV newsreaders, the dreadful photographs in the newspapers and of course the customary holiday in the government school after the mourning.
These memories make me unsure how to judge this film. It claims to be fictional but the entities are so obvious that I cannot take it that way. But at the same time I can understand that in this land it is not possible to make a film using real names without getting into trouble.
Finally a film that doesn’t embarrass…
The treatment of the film works mostly well. This is arguably the first big budget, mainstream, Bollywood film that focuses on real world geopolitics (And runs for barely two hours). There is a visible effort to look authentic. This should not have been a big deal in the first place but Bollywood’s track record in this regard has been so pathetic that the makers of this film must be lauded even for trying this one.
After the absurdity of Agent Vinod and Ek Tha Tiger, finally we have a film that offers us some realistic insights into the workings of RAW and other government agencies as well as the bureaucratic conflicts between them. Most people know Shoojit Sircar as the director of Vicky Donor but before that he made Yahaan. That film showed early promises of gritty treatment and visual flair but unfortunately it decided to deal in the love story like any other Bollywood film and used the Kashmir issue as a mere backdrop. But with Madras Café, Sircar avoids that. A celebrity producer has also made it easier for him to have quality production values. Especially the cinematography by Kamaljeet Negi is worth mentioning. Also, I am not sure if the background music is derivative, but it is used aptly and adds to the mood of the film.
But it could have been so much more…
One of the most noticeable anomalies in the film is uneven casting. Some of the characters have been brilliantly cast using unknown faces who are eerily similar to the real life people they are alluding to. But at the same time why must they have someone as familiar as the good old Quiz Master and of course a certain Ms Fakhri? In the midst of all this though John Abraham does his level best to keep his home production moving.
Secondly the writing leaves a lot to be desired in terms of the narrative as well as the dialogues. The flash back and voice over device, by virtue of extreme repetition, feels ineffective nowadays. Also, it is hard to believe that the dialogues are from the writer of Vicky Donor. Of course that was a completely different film but the dialogues were quirky, intelligent and more importantly in tune with the characters in question. Here it seems that the writers were finding it hard to decide whether to use Hindi or English most of the times.
Also, was the sugar-coating really needed? At least two different characters ask, “Kya galti thi hamare PM ki (What was the fault of our PM)?”. Why present the deceased as an angelic victim just because he met with a tragic end? But more importantly what I felt could have taken the film to another level was a bit more adventurous plotting. In fact the plot is pretty dense already and for someone not too familiar with the events, this may work perfectly fine. But for most Indians, this is all too familiar and hence I wish they had dug a bit deeper. For instance, who are those masterminds at the Café? The film explains it with a sweeping socialist line (Big corporations, big countries or something to that effect). Wish they had alluded to some more local politicians and of course a certain Nemichand Jain.
Anyways, I think my lines are sounding a bit harsher that I’d originally intended to. Overall, I think it is one of the better films I have seen this year. It doesn’t beat around the bushes, doesn’t drag and doesn’t fall for usual trappings of commercial cinema. But nevertheless, I had high expectations from the directors and hence could not resist a few rants.
It would not be appropriate not to mention a few pertinent issues here. Firstly, I am seeing some people complaining about historical and factual inaccuracies. Now, this is a country where philistines and chauvinists dictate the terms. The film could not even use real names (Black Friday once tried that and paid the price). The liberal society failed to defend its own rights and the filmmakers were forced to declare everything to be “fictional”. So what is the point of whining over factual inaccuracy now?
Also the hue and cry in Tamil Nadu over the film is totally misleading. In any case ban culture is not a healthy sign and in this I find the objection to be hardly justifiable. If anything, the film makes one sympathize with the innocent civilians. In fact, this is more of a thriller about an assassination plot (Which DID happen!) rather than a documentation of the civil war and the ethnic conflict. Those who need something really focusing on the victims can watch the following… Mani Ratnam has covered everything in just one song.