Madras Cafe may not be a perfect film, but it deserves praise for doing what it does in our cinematic climate

I finally caught up with Madras Café, which begins with this snatch of background information: “In the mid-1980s, Sri Lanka was facing its most dreadful ethnic crisis. According to various estimates, thousands of ethnic Tamils had been killed.” This could be the prelude to a gung-ho action thriller. After all, Star Wars got going with an equally sobering prelude, a scrolling text that told us about a civil war a long time ago, with rebels and secret plans and the quest for a free home.

But Madras Café isn’t a comforting fantasy. Its only closure comes from the bookending text at the end: “In the Sri Lankan civil war, which lasted for 27 years, over 40,000 civilians, 30,000 Tamil militants, 21,000 Sri Lankan security forces and 1,200 Indian soldiers lost their lives. And thousands of Tamils still remain displaced... In May 2009, the civil war came to an end with the defeat of the Tamil rebels in the most brutal assault by the Sri Lankan military forces.”

It would have been so easy to make that Star Wars-like movie. A complete fantasy. It could have been any country, any war, any Prime Minister-type figure who’s being targeted for assassination by a human bomb. Except, the hero goes in and gets the bad guys in time. But the director Shoojit Sircar takes the tougher path. He names the country. He names, as closely as possible, the various organizations, people and governments involved. (LTTE, for instance, becomes LTF – Liberation of Tamils Front – also known as Tigers.)

And he gives us those brutal statistics, culled from reports in real life. He sets out to make that most difficult of things, a fictional film based on factual events – and he doesn’t want to do what, say, Mani Ratnam did with Kannathil Muthamittal (which was also set against the Sri Lankan civil war) or Steven Spielberg did with Saving Private Ryan (which was set against World War II).

In those films, the war is a backdrop against which a humanistic story unfolds. The sense of the war is a general one – the actual details are irrelevant, and we don’t watch these films because of how accurate they are in terms of places and peoples and events. We treat these films as pure fiction. This doesn’t mean they’re easy (or easier) to make – just that the director has a lot of creative license, the kind that Sircar doesn’t have.

He is straitjacketed by the fact that he is dramatizing real-life events, real-life people, real-life places. The narrator who takes us through this story, an army man (played by John Abraham) responsible for RAW’s covert operations in Jaffna, may be fictional, but his journey is cobbled with fact. It’s the journey of any Indian operative who got wind of the fact that Rajiv Gandhi was going to be assassinated and did his damnedest to prevent it.

The film could have been called The Assassination of Rajiv Gandhi because there’s no suspense there. It happened. We were there when this young, charismatic leader was killed – this was our frozen-in-time they-shot-Kennedy moment. To a lot of us, therefore, the huge stretches of scene-setting, with expositional voiceovers, are unnecessary (and they rob the drama of urgency) – but you can see why this information is important to someone who hasn’t been through these events.

And you have to respect Sircar for taking the time to contextualize his race-against-time thriller, and also for crafting a narrative with no songs, no romance, no wins. The last mainstream Indian film that felt this bleak was probably Drohkaal (and its remake Kurudhipunal). These films know that it’s impossible – and futile, and hugely disrespectful to how things really work – to fashion a triumphal narrative around these subjects. The hero is not going to win. The audience is not going to go home on a high.

The enemy is always two steps ahead. There are hydra-headed foreign-funded organizations with vested interests, and they are so powerful that a single hero can do very little. There are no clear-cut good guys or bad guys, either, that he can affiliate himself with. Early on, we think the Sinhalese forces are the villains. They halt a bus filled with Tamils, shoot down men, women and children (a little girl who tries to flee is mowed down hideously), and set the bus on fire.

But when the Tamils form forces of their own and when they get a leader, they commit brutalities as well. The lines are not clear, as in most of our movies, and in this murk, people fight internal wars over what’s right and what’s wrong. The journalist in this film, for instance, isn’t the kind of cardboard cut-out we find in Madhur Bhandarkar and Prakash Jha films, but someone who has to decide between naming a source (and going against the ethics of her profession) and aiding an investigation.

There’s a lot in Madras Café that could have been better, the actress who plays that journalist for one. Watching Nargis Fakhri embodying the cliché of a writer hammering away at a typewriter with a cigarette stuck between her lips is a visual joke for the ages. The Tamil spoken in the film isn’t Sri Lankan Tamil but the language you hear on the streets of Chennai – an odd gaffe for a film filled with so much research. And there’s only so much you can do to dramatise exposition, some of which is inevitably dumbed down for the sake of a larger audience. But once the plot to kill Gandhi (who’s known by another name here) gets going, the film finds its footing. Sircar could have simply made this thriller, without all the attendant fact. But by opting to root these thrills in fact, by opting not to rely entirely on the conventions of that genre, he proves to be a conscientious mainstream filmmaker. And you can’t have enough of those.

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