Over the last year Bollywood has seen a revival of espionage movies centered around the trials and tribulations of *Research & Analysis Wing agents. The resurgence came about with the slick but slightly prolonged Agent Vinod. About five months later arrived a spy flick graced with the grandeur that is Salman Khan, Ek Tha Tiger. More recently there was the propaganda-ridden yet entertaining D-Day.
Now Madras Café takes a few pages out of history textbooks for inspiration through the eyes of a fictitious protagonist (a la James McAvoy-Forest Whitaker starrer The Last King of Scotland). Plus, when the lead star who also happened to be the Producer, touted the intense fare as India’s Argo, expectations only soared.
Will this new political thriller be able to hold its own with Shah Rukh Khan’s latest release still dominating the box office and stiff competition from a similar genre, Satyagraha, lurking around the corner?
The answer is an emphatic yes albeit the numerous set backs in Tamil Nadu and the United Kingdom.
The film commences with former RAW agent Vikram Singh (John Abraham) during his state of self-imposed exile where he constantly drowns his sorrows in alcohol. He then ventures to an Anglican Church where he recounts his experiences as an agent who spearheaded covert operations in Sri Lanka. Through clandestine means, he was tasked with dismantling the guerilla *LTF faction that his government helped advance during the *Sinhala-Tamil conflict.
As Vikram delved deeper into his mission, he learned of a larger conspiracy amidst the Sri Lankan Civil War to assassinate the *ex Prime Minister. Aiding him in his pursuit of truth is idealistic British journalist Jaya Sahni (Nargis Fakhri). The mission’s consequences also began to take a toll on the RAW officer’s personal life which further motivates him to uncover the conspiracy. The fact that Vikram’s bureaucratic handler Bala (Prakash Belawadi) makes life difficult for him only adds another layer to the conflict.
First and foremost, John Abraham deserves great adulation since he banked on the brilliant script written by Somnath Dey, Shubendu Bhattacharya, and Juhi Chaturvedi. His cinematic acumen is clearly serving him well in that he has switched gears from the delightful comedy Vicky Donor to this unorthodox political thriller. The screenplay keeps you hooked from the get go especially considering the lack of stereotypical Bollywood elements. Whether you are an avid politico or apathetic towards international relations, thankfully the film does not presuppose too much familiarity with the Sri Lankan civil war. The writers cleverly depict the vested commercial/diplomatic interests rampant in world affairs.
Director Shoojit Sircar was the right choice to man the ship because his vision complements the screenwriters’ historical research and watertight plot. He effortlessly tests the political waters like he did in his directorial debut, Yahaan. However, this time romantic sub plots or colorful song & dance sequences are nowhere to be seen. Chandrashekar Prajapati’s crisp editing is worthy of praise as assembling material chronicling a decade long war into two hours is no laughing matter.
For those who have visited Sri Lanka or lived in India during the 80s/90s, Madras Café will take them back into time. Such is the authenticity of the production design, camerawork, and locations.
In his previous outing, Action Abraham delivered the most bludgeoning performance as Manya Surve. This time as Vikram Singh, he enacts his part with the right mix of subtlety and intensity. New Yorker Narghis Fakhri clearly has a long way to go before her Hindi becomes flawless. Luckily she only speaks English throughout the movie even when the whole cast predominantly converses with her in Hindi and Tamil. Nonetheless with the linguistic barrier taken care of, Fakhri’s histrionics, not her dubbed Hindi, speak volumes. Prakash Belawadi’s portrayal of the antagonistic and compromised RAW Director is enough of a reason for major award functions to bring back the Best Performance in a Negative Role accolade. Ajay Ratnam resurrects brings slain LTTE chief Vellupillai Prabhakaran back to life via his rendition of *Anna Bhaskaran. Raashi Khanna does well in her brief but important role.
The movie’s only blemishes lie in minute details though. For instance, one of Madras Café’s central themes elaborates on the negative consequences of *blowback resulting from intervention in other countries’ affairs. This was briefly touched on in the first half when Jaya states, “initially we supported and furthered the LTF, now we have switched sides to the *TNA out of opportunism.”
Not to justify Rajiv Gandhi’s slaying, but it was his turncoat behavior that planted the seeds for his untimely death. Madras Café downplays that fact and instead attributes the overall blame for his killing solely to Machiavellian entities that felt threatened by the leader of an upcoming nation. Additionally, why does Nargis Fakhri’s character have an American accent despite being a British national?
All in all, this is a treat for those who enjoy the interweaving of historical fact and fiction. Get off the train(wreck) that is Chennai Express and head to Madras Café for some appetizing South Indian filter coffee.
*Research & Analysis Wing – India’s external intelligence agency
*LTF– aclear reference to the LTTE
*Sinhala-Tamil conflict – The ethnic demographics of Sri Lanka consist of the Sinhala majority, roughly 70 percent of the population and the Tamil minorities, 30 percent of the population. After independence from the British in 1948, Prime Minister Solomon Bandranaike implemented certain language policies and educational legislations that began the gradual process of marginalizing the Tamil population. The Sinhalese believed that prior to independence they had been disenfranchised by the British while the Tamils rose to prominence. Hence the special interests (certain backward Sinhala communities) pushed for policies that the educational gerrymandering and unfair ‘Sinhala-Only’ Language Policy. As Tamils’ were relegated to the sidelines, a militant group known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (which was the breakaway faction of Tamil nationalist parties/movements) used guerilla tactics to advocate for Tamil rights. Yes, the LTTE may have legitimate qualms, they resorted to terrorist tactics for the Tamil Agenda. India furthered the group by providing arms and training to them. India did this while acting both as a mediator between the LTTE and Sri Lanka and simultaneously propping up the group. All this just to appeal to the Indian Tamils who were also a major voter base. Eventually the Indian government deemed the LTTE of no use were of no use which is why they the group was rebuffed.
*ex Prime Minister – the ex PM was modeled after former PM Rajiv Gandhi
*Anna Bhaskaran – a character heavily based upon LTTE chief Vellupillai Prabhakaran
*blowback – unintended consequences of a covert operation that are suffered by the civil population of the aggressor government
*TNA – Tamil National Alliance, a rival group of the LTTE