Madras Cafe is a smart espionage thriller considering the fact that the last time two times a RAW agent was seen in a hindi movie, they were busy romancing ISI agents and running around the planet without reason and strangely had a lot of clothes to change into. Having said that, I must admit that I do not wholly agree with the political stand (and implications) that the movie takes (and makes) but then again it’s a work of fiction, or so I presume. The depths of the conflict are never fully explored for some reason but for Indian audiences, this is a step forward. The ideas and the narrative are unlike what we are used to seeing on screen. More than anyone, the producers should be applauded for going against the tide when the rest of them are making films which require you to leave your brains at home.
The film blends in a fictional covert operation that goes wrong with actual facts. It is set primarily in Sri Lanka during its darkest years and comments on India’s role in the scheme of things. Certain things have been obviously changed; LTTE becomes LTF, Velupillai Prabhakaran becomes Anna Bhaskaran, and the Prime Minister is never named. The movie is very engaging and not for a moment does the narrative fail to engross you. John Abraham plays Vikram Singh, an army officer deputed to the Research (&) Analysis Wing headed by the stoic Robin Dutt, a bureaucrat portrayed exceedingly well by Siddharth Basu. Basu’s character sends Vikram right into the heart of action to help bring in a peaceful solution to one of the most violent genocides in the region. There’s a whole lot of unconventional casting in the film; news anchor Dibang plays an ex-RAW agent, there’s Basu and then there is film-maker, thespian and journalist, Prakash Belawadi who fantastically plays Bala, RAW’s Chennai (Madras) based handler/boss. Nargis Fakhri plays Jaya, an International journalist who’s covering the conflict. The film with its realistic approach smartly hides Abraham’s limited acting abilities but he does do a fine job of stepping into his characters shoes. Even Nargis Fakhri is bearable, which is maybe because her lines are in English or maybe the Director’s a freaking genius.
My problem, though, is with the Tamil characters speaking in Hindi; because trying to place a leader of a linguistic based military faction speaking in Hindi is very hard. Also, why does John converse in Hindi when Nargis replies to him in English; the sing-song volley there is a little annoying. Another point is that if John can speak fluent Tamil and Thai, why does he speak in Hindi to the LTF deserter? And then, there is the issue of anachronism – a lot of things are shown to exist before they actually do. But then again, even Mira Nair’s Reluctant Fundamentalist had a Canon 5D camera before 9/11, when in the real world- the 5D Mark I was released in 2005.
The movie is well paced and is executed well at the script level and otherwise. The visuals are edgy with a documentary feel to it, a lot like Paul Greengrass’ films. This is gritty, rustic and raw, very different from the candy floss stuff Bollywood usually goes for nowadays. The editing is so freaking slick and transitions through the narrative very well. The background score is brilliant, I know I’ve been posting other articles about Shantanu Moitra off late; but he’s good in this. And there is something almost everyone will fail to notice – the sound design – it’s so hauntingly real that each scene’s impact owes a lot, if not all, to the sound design. Bishwadeep Chatterjee has done it again.
The movie runs for 130 minutes and apart from the overt use of character stereotypes and a somewhat annoying voiceover, it’s fantastic and is breaking new ground. The climax is recreating one of the worst moments from our political history and yet it’s so well crafted. This is a welcome change especially with the kinds of big budget piles of poop we have seen in the recent past.