In the first frames of Shoojit Sircar's new film Madras Café, we are somewhere in Sri Lanka, where armed men in trucks make their way through a stunning green landscape. They kill a busload of people in cold blood, singling out the last remaining child in a striking act of brutality. Cut to Kasauli, India, in 1993, with the whirr of a helicopter being used to transition between past and present. A man with an unkempt beard wakes with a start from his black-and-white nightmares of those same events, only to hear on television the announcement that the Sri Lankan president has been assassinated. It's a good, taut beginning, especially for a thriller that will unfold in flashback.
But unfortunately, our hero – for it is John Abraham under that beard – has other plans for the audience. He goes and buys himself a believable half-bottle of rum, arrives drunkenly at Kasauli's old Anglican church and starts – in time-honoured filmi fashion – to tell his life story to the priest.
There is something faintly ridiculous about the scene, though you can't quite put your finger on it yet. Even when you hear Abraham's Vikram Singh respond to the death of the Premadasa figure by saying plaintively, “Hum apne Prime Minister ko bachaa sakte thhe”, you don't quite realise where this is going. You've been led to expect a thriller about the Sri Lankan conflict, and so you wait for it. Unfortunately, you end up waiting for it long after the movie is over.
Shoojit Sircar's third feature, coming after the charming comedy that was Vicky Donor, created high expectations. In its choice of a conflict zone as setting, though, Madras Cafe perhaps has more in common with Sircar's first feature, the under-watched Yahaan(2005). Yahaan was set in Kashmir, and on the surface, was more mainstream in its choices – it had songs (rather good ones, by Shantanu Moitra), a coy heroine (Minissha Lamba making her debut), and it chose to foreground its politics through the oldest trick in the Hindi movie book -- star-crossed romance. (That, too, between Lamba’s Kashmiri girl and Jimmy Shergill’s North Indian army man, Muslim and Hindu respectively).
Madras Cafe eschews songs completely (though Moitra steps in again with a nicely understated soundtrack). Nargis Fakhri is clearly under strict instructions to look and act businesslike, and any love-shuv between Abraham's RAW agent and Fakhri's firang journo is a no-no. For that increasingly influential tribe of people who only like Hindi cinema when it's either parodying itself or snottily looking down at the mainstream, this means Madras Cafe must be feted for the courage of its unusual political subject, non-heroic antics and attempted realism.
Here’s the rub: Yahaan was so much better!
Certainly, with Madras Café Sircar took on a difficult and admirable task: to translate into Hindi cinema terms a messy civil war in a neighbouring country that most Hindi film viewers know little about. Without a love story. And yes, one must applaud Sircar and his producer-protagonist John Abraham for their risk-taking and their team for an attractively shot film that preserves a quiet tonal unity and makes brave attempts at visual and aural detailing as the action whizzes from Delhi to Cochin to Madurai to Jaffna to Bangkok. War zones and vegetable markets, fishing harbours and guerrilla camps are all evoked with deft economy. I particularly appreciated the choreographed feel of the final setpiece – a fictional recreation of that infamous rally at Sriperumbudur.
But all the lush rain forests and twilit helicopter flights in the world cannot plug the gaping holes in this film. The script feels simultaneously too convoluted and too simplistic. There’s a total disinterest in the actual content of Sinhala-Tamil politics. Worst of all, the characters never move you, because they never transcend their predictable roles in the plot. Abraham as Vikram is well-intentioned and flat as ever. Mercifully, he doesn't ham, but an underplayed performance from him doesn't reveal hidden intensity; it just leaves one cold. Rashi Khanna, who plays Vikram's wife Ruby, seems a promising actor, but we learn literally nothing about her except that she's anxious about her husband's safety. Ruby is a one-note character and her departure goes un-lamented.
Sircar crams his corridors-of-power scenes with familiar faces from the Delhi theatre world – Avijit Dutt, Sudhanva Deshpande, Jayanta Das and Swaroopa Ghosh (both of whom also acted in Vicky Donor, as Yami Gautam's father and pishi respectively) and most interestingly, Siddharth Basu. Basu as Vikram's super-boss Robin Dutt and Kannada theatre person Prakash Belawade as the hard-drinking agent Bala are the only ones to leave anything close to an impression.
The actors playing Tamil leaders of the LTF (the film's stand-in for the LTTE) all display some acting chops, but the film doesn't give them enough space to be memorable. Sadly, even the claim to realism often goes for a toss – we never learn how Vikram Singh speaks seemingly fluent Tamil in Sri Lanka and fluent Thai in Bangkok; or how a journalist can afford to fly down from London to Delhi for a single meeting with an Indian RAW agent while not even on assignment.
What really makes this film fall flat is the vagueness of its central dramatic thread – Tamils in Madras Café die as innocents and kill as guerrillas, but what are they dying and fighting for? That is never really explored, politically or emotionally. Compared to this lightweightness, Prakash Jha's Chakravyuh seems intellectually ambitious. Also, the treatment leaves much to be desired. A voiceover is the weakest device a thriller can use, and Madras Café is plagued by the most banal voiceover ever. A sample: “Main unse compete kaise karta? Woh log powerful thhe,” whines Vikram. You’d think the audience might be expected to have cottoned on to that, having just watched an ostensibly international conspiracy unfold. But no.
At the end of the film, Vikram is still going on about how he could have saved “our Prime Minister” and it feels like Madras Café was never interested in Sri Lanka to begin with. Maybe Sircar should have just made a Rajiv Gandhi biopic. It would have been more honest – and who knows, we might actually have mourned.