Madras Cafe (2013)

madras_cafe_xlgI watched the espionage/political thriller called Madras Café recently. It was set in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. The director of the film, Shoojit Sircar went on record to say that this film was ‘fiction created from facts’. The events that formed the backdrop for the movie were the Sri Lankan Civil War, and the assassination of India’s former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. The film opened a few months ago on August 23rd, 2013.

The star is John  Abraham, who usually plays hunky leading men. Playing the fictitious, Major Vikram Singh, Abraham had to shed some pounds and some muscle. To be an effective covert operative, he’d have to blend into a crowd. The role of the foreign (British) correspondent, Jaya Sahni, went to an American woman, Nargis Fakhri, who was born and grew up in Queens, NY.

As a thriller, the film is fairly effective although it is partially hamstrung due to the merging of two stories. One story line is the fact that India sent in covert operatives as a means to try to get the Sri Lankan Sinhalese majority to reach an accord with the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka.  This would, if accomplished, a political solution to the ongoing and extremely bloody Sri Lankan civil war. This pretty much takes up the first half of the film.

The second story thread is that in the course of events, Major Vikram Singh, with Sahni’s help, discovers a plot to assassinate an unnamed Ex-PM. We know that Gandhi was assassinated when a woman carrying a bomb beneath her clothes blew herself and him up at a political rally in a South Indian town. So there’s no real suspense about that. Even so, the race to try to prevent it and save Gandhi was thrilling.

Okay, Abraham and Fakhri are good-looking, attractive people. Director Sircar filmed in Malaysia, Thailand, India and the UK. With the attractive leads, and the great locations shoots, the film looks beautiful.  The extremely high body count is another factor. While not quite as heavy as what we saw in The Killing Fields, it is certainly not a film to bring the kids to.

Another aspect that makes this a film that is far different from much of the Bollywood fare we see, is that there’s no song and dance numbers. Singh and Sahni are not suddenly transported to some alpine setting for a love song. In fact there are no love scenes. Singh is a married man, and true blue. And Sahni is all business.

So there’s action, drama, some suspense, and the film has a way of keeping you involved because they don’t spoon feed you with the knowledge you need to keep up. This is a strength.

It is also a serious flaw. The film takes heavy dramatic license and in doing so, to some people,  doesn’t present a fair picture of the Tamils – who would later protest the film so much that it did not open in Tamil Nadu, a south India state, nor in the UK. We get little or no historical background of the causes of the Sri Lankan War.

There’s no mention of an Indian PM, Indira Gandhi, supplying the Tamil rebels with arms. In the film we see random killings resulting in thousands of deaths, and hundreds of thousand Tamils having to flee Sri Lanka for their lives. But the film does squarely point the finger at a group of Tamil separatists =as the people responsible for the assassination.

The film doesn’t make mention of India’s long involvement via the IPKF (Indian Peace-Keeping Force) – supporting the rebels, or supporting the Sinhalese majority. The IPKF didn’t just show up at the time of the film. Nor does the film take the Sinhalese to task either. We come away with the thought that war is hell. And folks, that is not news.

And there’s more – and it isn’t news either. Wars usually have ideology at their core, but closer to the surface is the fact of profit. There’s an unnamed cabal at work in this film. The used a honey trap (sex with a blonde) to get the goods, on India’s man in Jaffna, Sri Lanka, who would then (as he was being blackmailed) give all that he would learn about the covert operations to the cabal who would pass it on to the Tamil’s leader. The cabal’s goal was to get the Tamil Leader into office, then with him in office, directing the country’s money, so they could make the port of Trincomalee, in Sri Lanka, the world’s greatest shipping port.

There are plenty of characters and plenty of things to keep track of. I think the film works superbly on many levels – despite the historical inaccuracies, or the specific history that was intentionally left out of the film, and has angered so many. Like we are taken right into the corridors of power in New Delhi, and we see the inner workings of India’s Intelligence Service, the RAW – Research and Analysis Wing.

We'll fight India too. It will be a long war.

We’ll fight India too. This is going to be a long war.

However no such thing happens in Sri Lanka. We do meet the Tamil Rebel’s general – one Anna Bhaskaran, who bore a distinct resemble to the actual person his character was based on. And the actor portraying the unnamed Ex-PM, could have been a double for Rajiv Gandhi.

Director Sircar, disingenuously has said, Any resemblance to the real life parties, is purely coincidental. Yeah, right.

Maybe if you were closer to the places, and the events of 20 to 30 years ago, your perspective would be different. Abraham himself was born in 1972, and that makes him a 40 something. He was 19 at the time of the Gandhi assassination.

This is just Shoojit Sircar’s 3rd film as a director.

As for Nargis Fakhri, this film was just her second. In something of a peculiarity, in the film, Abraham’s Vikram speaks to her mostly in Hindi, with some English sprinkled in. She however, speaks only in English. Another thing you might notice is the similarity between her Jaya Sahni character and Jennifer Connelly’s Maddy Bowen in  Blood Diamond (2006). I am not going to rave about her performance, but I think her future is bright. If not in Indian films, then possibly on American television.

Have a look at the trailer which doesn’t have subtitles but it has more than enough English for you to get a good sense of what the film is about.

I am rating the film at three-point five zero. You can view the film via the streaming service, or you can buy the DVD on ebay. And yes, I am recommending the film. By the way, the Madras Cafe referenced in the film is the location, in Singapore, where the cabal met. It is not a reference to the Indian city once known as Madras, but today is called Chennai.


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