August 08, 2020
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Madras Cafe

Not a political, ideological film so much as a thril­ler about a grand conspiracy

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Madras Cafe
Madras Cafe

Starring: John Abraham, Nargis Fakhri, Rashi Khanna, Siddhartha Basu, Dibang
Directed by Shoojit Sarcar
Rating: **

The ostensibly fictionalised Madras Cafe has strong roots in the real. For those well-versed in the ethnic conflict between the Sinhalese and the minority Tamils in Sri Lanka in the ’80s-90s, there are enough references to real events and people: the fight for a separate homeland, the refuge in India of one Anna Bhaskaran of LTF, who couldn’t be anyone but the LTTE head Prabhakaran, and the disputes amongst the various Tamil groups themselves. There’s a nod to Adnan Khashoggi here, an invocation of Chandraswami there. Sarcar goes about portraying the discord and the civil war in a matter of fact, clinical way, neither taking sides nor getting judgemental. But then, Madras Cafe is not a political, ideological film so much as a thril­ler about a grand conspiracy from which an ex-PM of India could not be saved.

John plays an Indian army officer appointed by RAW as part of a covert operation to get rebel groups in Sri Lanka to surrender and restore peace for provincial elections. The highlight of the film is the way it has been shot, with the swoop and panorama that one would associate with a Hollywood film on Vietnam. Irony is that Madras Cafe itself speaks of Sri Lanka being India’s Vietnam. The casual officialdom in New Delhi and its disconnect and detachment with the ground situation is captured well. How the bureaucracy created a monster, then created more monsters to counter it and in effect botched up everything. It only helps that Sarcar gets some Delhi faces—Siddhartha Basu, Sudha­nva Deshpande—to bring the sloppy babudom alive. Rashi Kha­nna as John’s wife makes her elegant presence felt. Nargis Fakhri as a UK journo of Ind­ian descent remains as stilted as she was in Rockstar.

There is an overall terseness in story-telling. The guerilla fighting, the encounters and ambushes and the heart-rending bloodbath have been shown with restraint, the camera doesn’t ever get voyeuristic. What is irksome is the protracted voice-over, stretching almost the entire first half. Could not there have been a better way to establish the context, state the facts than turn the film tedious with the commentary and explanation? It makes the first half seem like a primer for the uninitiated than a piece of fiction. 

Things get gripping in the second half as security leaks happen, covers get blown and death comes knocking within the confines of families and homes. The boundless, fathomless pain of losing a loved one is portrayed with depth and intensity, but no melodrama. None of the characters (save John) get into focus as individuals nor is much time spent on their relationships. Because the real character here is the tragic situation itself.

Edited online. The print version of this article refers to "covert operation in the pre-IPKF days". The reference to "pre-IPKF days" has been removed from this version.

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