Watching Madras Café is both frustrating and satisfying. The thriller, set against the backdrop of the Sri Lankan civil war, is, in equal parts, muddled and moving. There are sequences of power and eloquence. And passages in the first half that had me so confused that I couldn’t figure out who was chasing whom.
Director Shoojit Sircar has tacked on an awkward framing device, which has Major Vikram Singh, played by John Abraham, narrating the entire story to a priest in a church. Why was this necessary? I don’t know.
The film begins with a disclaimer that it is a work of fiction. Names have been changed but the events of Madras Café are clearly based in the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka, which ultimately led to the assassination of Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991. Here, the plot moves inexorably towards the assassination of a former prime minister. Major Vikram is an intelligence officer with the Indian army enlisted in a covert operation to broker peace in the war-torn country. The film cuts rapidly between New Delhi, London, Bangkok and Kerala. There are high-powered meetings in Delhi in which powerful men give clipped orders like ‘Humein har halat mein Anna chahiye’. But missions are derailed by bloody betrayals on the ground.
We also have Nargis Fakhri in an ill-defined role of a war journalist, who grimly tells Vikram: “They know your first move before you even implement it”. Throughout the film, she speaks in English and he replies in Hindi, which makes for clumsy conversation.
And yet, Madras Café works as an effective portrait of the futility of war. Shoojit and his writers, Shubhendu Bhattacharya and Somnath Dey, ably illustrate why there are no winners here. Ideologies are marred by corruption and brutality. Death is inevitable and victories, pyrrhic. A special mention here of John Abraham, who stretches himself as both actor and producer. He does a commendable job. As does Prakash Belawadi, who plays Vikram’s hard-drinking superior. And cinematographer Kamaljeet Negi, whose camera gives the film scale and heft. Shantanu Moitra’s unobtrusive music underlines the tragedy.
Madras Café is flawed but ambitious and brave. I recommend you make time for it.