Madras Cafe review: Taut, gritty and as close a film can get to history

It’s easy for a movie like Madras Cafe to dissolve into the nonsensical in the true tradition of Bollywood espionage/suspense thrillers. But this film holds its own.

Gritty, sombre and largely understated, Shoojit Sircar's offering stands out in its purposefulness and honesty of intent. That Sircar is an accomplished storyteller with great skills at narrative balance was evident in Vicky Donor; he proves it again here. The shift in genre - Donor was a rom-com, Madras Cafe qualifies as a suspense thriller - does not dilute any of his defining traits.

To begin with, it’s a brave plot in our politically hyper-sensitive times. While Sircar’s Vicky Donor sought to drive home a serious message in a subtle, light-hearted way; his Madras Cafe stares the subject - the Sri Lankan ethnic strife and the Indian government’s embarrassing entanglement in it - in the face and does not hold back much. Yes, he weaves bits of fiction into historical developments, but for the most part, he tells the story as it is, eschewing the temptation to be diplomatic or deliberately abstract or apologetic. The deft mix of facts and fiction makes the movie a hugely satisfying experience.

The poster for Madras Cafe

The poster for Madras Cafe

For those familiar with the sub-continent’s history, the characters are easily identifiable, as is the backdrop. Without divulging too much, the plot is built around the Sri Lankan civil war in the 1980s and the then Indian government’s efforts to find a lasting solution to the ethnic conflict through the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF).

As is the case with all major political-strategic decisions in history, we will never have a conclusive answer as to whether the Indian government’s decision to send in the IPKF to quell the civil war was a monumental policy blunder or a case of good intention going horribly wrong due to operational botch-up. Madras Cafe, while depicting the developments of the day through the tribulation and tragedies of protagonist Bikram, offers us the opportunity to form our own perspective.

For those not in the loop, here’s the back story. The IPKF, pressed into operation in the Tamil-dominated territories of Sri Lanka under the mandate of the Indo-Sri Lankan Accord in 1987, was assigned to disarm the different Tamil militant outfits in Sri Lanka and allow the political process to take over.

The primary agenda of the then Indian government was to stop the killings of Tamils in the island nation and stop the heavy flow of refugees to Tamil Nadu. The force was not supposed to get involved in any armed combat, but things deteriorated fast and it got dragged into factional fights among the several Tamil groups. It ended up fighting a bitter war with the most powerful among the rebel outfits, the LTTE. After heavy casualties, it was withdrawn in 1990 after a change of regime in India.

However, that was not the end of the story.

Revenge from the LTTE followed swiftly. Rajiv Gandhi, the prime minister who ordered the IPKF, was killed in a suicide bomb attack in Tamil Nadu.

However, all this is not as simple as it appears. There were layers and layers of intrigue built into the developments and it involved players across several countries and within the Indian security and intelligence establishment.

Paradropped into this complex scenario with a dangerous assignment, military man-turned-RAW agent Bikram Singh has to fight his way through. He does it valiantly, making personal sacrifices, but fails when it matters most. But the story, co-written by Somnath Dey and Shubendu Bhattacharya, is not about ‘him’. That’s the beauty of Madras Cafe. The swirl of bewildering yet well-connected developments around him is the real protagonist and driving force of the movie.

This could well be John Abraham’s coming of age role. Wooden yes, but he fits in to the narrative with minimal fuss, neither dominating the proceeding, nor getting overwhelmed by the weight of the script. Troubled and brooding, angry and helpless, frustrated yet committed to duty — he plays it all with uncharacteristic maturity. Nargis Fakhri is not bad in a tiny role as journalist. But the overall credit goes to the script, which manages a huge and problematic canvas without visible jerks. The ensemble cast is managed wonderfully by Sircar.

It’s easy to find flaws, but remember, good movies are all about stories being made believable to the viewer. Madras Café is believable. Backed by good cinematography, it engages you. Anyone with a lesser heart would have been petrified by the massive canvas of the plot and given up. Sircar does not. He cooks up a racy and taut fare. One hopes his movie begins a trend in mainstream Hindi cinema.