A journalist's review: Despite factual problems Madras Cafe is worth a watch
by Padma Rao Sundarji
Madras Cafe comes as a great relief to someone who dreads Hindi movies because of the songs (that all sound the same) and the million wailing violins that wash over the tragic hero hamming his way through a moment of pathos.
Why, the new movie directed by Shoojit Sircar doesn't even have a romance between the two hunkiest people in the movie, nor - praise the Lord- between the glamorous journalist and her subject, the rebel leader.
First the actors. Beefy John Abraham does himself a favour by making no attempt to act. Instead, he sticks to what he's best at - looking fit, tanned and leaping around with guns - and ends up both credible and likeable.
Though I have yet to figure out why a 'British' journalist has an American accent, that's an insignificant piece of trivia to hold against the young and lovely Ms Nargis Fakhri, who does a fairly good job of what she is required to do. However, I don't know of a single text reporter who covered the civil war as I have done for 14 years, shooting stills while interviewing someone. Unless a photo-journalist on assignment for a 'photo essay' with maximum visual and minimum text, no print journalist who covered the Sri Lankan war in those years travelled in the war-zone without a photographer. But more on that later.
Madras Cafe and the response it got - our hall was full on Day 3 of its release - is a pleasant indicator that cinéma vérité has takers - even at Select Citywalk. And yes, yes, I confess I know these gentlemen but they really are the best : Siddhartha Basu and Avijit Dutt who play South Block to perfection. Dibang, the excellent TV anchor gets in a neat cameo too.
Now come the parts that were hard, at least for me.The hardest was squinting my eyes and trying to train myself to accept Kerala as the Jaffna peninsula and the Wanni.
-In all my years in the Sri Lankan war trawling the Wanni or Jaffna for stories, I have NEVER, ever seen mountains or even remotely hilly terrain, of the kind often looming in the background in the 'Jaffna' of the movie. The Jaffna peninsula is a flat landscape, and so is the Wanni. In fact, so is most of the North-East.
-Madras Cafe's coconut palms are too lush to be those in the civil war. Firstly, it is a different kind of coconut palm in Sri Lanka. Second and all through the war, palm and coconut trees were mostly bald: with their tops lopped off in 27 years of shelling and gunning.
-Sri Lanka has 53 waterfalls - mostly in mountainous 'up-country' in the Central and Southern Provinces but none in Jaffna.
-Yes, it is credible that war correspondents constantly shuttle between rebels, politicians and army men on the ground. But never, in all these decades have I encountered anyone foolish enough to disclose their 'sources' to one of the parties embroiled in the war (no matter how hunky) and that in the midst of the conflict.
-The fleeting words spoken in Tamil in "Jaffna" sound extremely mainland India. Sri Lankan Tamil has many nuances and variations and none of them resemble Indian Tamil when spoken. And all the faces, without exception , looked too Indian. When one has travelled as much in Sri Lanka as I have, there is a very clear and discernible difference between the features of Sri Lankans - both Tamil and Sinhalese-and Indians.
I am willing to forgive all of the above because I basically liked the movie. But allow me a few more irritants.
The choice of excerpts from LTTE and Sri Lankan history which went back and forth in time, for one. The introduction of "the LTTE fighter from the east" as one of the "dissenters" is 13 years too early. Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in 1991, Karuna split from the LTTE only in 2004. Still and since Madras Cafe is a work of fiction combined with fact, this would have been acceptable, if it weren't overdone. The plot of Madras Cafe is so convoluted that it turns into somewhat of a yawn in the middle. Had the director stuck to a simple story pivoting around the assassination, we could have had a thriller tense and gripping throughout, even if compelled to tell half-truths to stay out of trouble.
India built up the LTTE. There was a time in the eighties when Velupillai Prabhakaran was a state guest with a permanent suite at the Ashoka Hotel. He was affable and shy and smiled a lot, a far cry from the grim, tense, self-possessed leader I met in 2002 in a hide-out in the Wanni.
So the story could have started say, at that point; the withdrawal of the IPKF with the story of a fictitious country 'A' , first building up 'freedom fighters' and then abandoning them as 'terrorists' in fictitious country ' B', the messy war and the weary withdrawal in a flashback... Meanwhile and on the other side, the sense of betrayal and the unfolding of the diabolical plan to kill RG could have been built up with the help of copious archival material which is freely available to researchers.
The film could have turned gripping by portraying and answering the questions on everyone's minds : How were suicide tigers trained ? How did they feel ? What did they do as the day drew close ? Etc. ( In 2002 and while we were waiting to meet Prabhakaran, the LTTE had put on propaganda videos for our 'entertainment'. One of them was a lengthy documentary laid over with Georg Friedrich Handel's Water Music. It showed young suicide cadres hanging out with family, chatting on the phone to friends and having a last dinner with Prabhakaran before taking off on a boat and blowing themselves up near a Sri Lankan naval ship in full view of the camera. It was chilling and morbidly gripping). Meanwhile in country 'A', (and as in Madras Cafe) the intelligence inputs on a plot to assassinate Gandhi in revenge for the 'betrayal' could have kept the suspense taut. With the two coming together in a tense, terse finale - as they do in the movie.
Instead, we had an Indian informer, an Indian army officer under cover, the Indian army, the Indian bureaucracy, a terror group, three sets of potential LTTE dissenters, a mysterious set of white men (carefully replacing the Tamil diaspora, men like KP in Singapore and Anton Balasingham in London who actually organized funds to arm the LTTE). Indeed, the last is somewhat absurd : imperialist interests in 'keeping the pot boiling' and retaining the oil-rich Trincomalee harbour and bay, were never as dog-eat-dog as they are now. It is in the post-war era, that is NOW, that the REAL fight for Sri Lanka's assets has begun.
In short: too many plots and sub-plots. The audience and I lost track and focus. We began fiddling with our cell-phones and playing Angry Birds, even as John Abraham droned on woodenly.
To be fair to the flick, it does pick up towards the end. But why, oh why, a closing song and the narration of Where The Mind Is Without Fear ? I mean it was embarrassing enough that the bearded, woolly John Abraham who is the narrator of the flashback, seemed to be grieving far more over the missed opportunity to save a former PM than over the brutal killing of his own 'wife', without the film having to end on a cheesy note too.
Anyhow and hey, this is not meant to put you off. If you want to finally see a Bollywood flick with excellent cinematography and special effects set a trend by introducing a new kind of cinema, go get Madras Cafe. For all that - I enjoyed it. On a scale of one to ten? It's a nine.