MADRAS CAFÉ

For long, Hindi films made us believe that it is only Pakistan that we have to deal with. Shoojit Sircar touches base with Sri Lanka and unravels the complex ‘Tamil problem’ as many living North of the Vindhyas call it. We lost a former Prime Minister because of the vexed issue but it failed to spur the imagination of a Bollywood film-maker.

Well, Sircar turns the clock back, breaking new ground for Hindi cinema. Keeping the jingoistic flavour aside, he plays the game of shadows as it is played with all its muck and grime. Drawing from the pages of our geopolitical history, Sircar tries to show how a political assassination could be prevented. No, he doesn’t take sides. Early in the film, Jaya Sahni (Nargis Fakhri), a war correspondent, on the way to Jaffna to cover the Civil War tells our undercover agent, Vikram Singh (John Abraham), “Criticising national policies, doesn’t make me anti-national.” Perhaps, she is echoing Sircar’s sentiments.

The real ammunition here is the script as Sircar doesn’t oversimplify things to reach out to the lowest common denominator. The only thing that he compromises with is the natural flow of conversation. While Jaya always speaks in English, Vikram always answers in Hindi. The narrative bats for the human loss in the crossfire between political and self interests. Echoing the sentiment that one man’s revolutionary is another man’s terrorist, the writers, Shubhendu Bhattacharya, Somnath Dey, Juhi Chaturvedi (dialogues), play safe and smart. Names have been changed and some names are not taken at all, but you don’t need to be an analyst to understand the political undertones of the operation. An operation where our intelligence agencies get involved in an espionage mission after the traditional means fail to bring a Tamil extremist group, led by the ferocious leader Anna, to the table. To keep the Prime Minister’s word for a peaceful political solution, military officer Vikram Singh is roped in by the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) to undertake a covert operation to break the group. But as soon as he lands in Jaffna, he realises the minefields start from his own camp. There are seniors who are eager to hunt him down even before the guerrillas smell him.

After a rather uninspiring start, Sircar has plotted a gripping tale where the action shifts from South Block to South India in almost real time. Here, it is not just the people in a scene that you have to listen to; you have to keep an ear out even for those who are not in the frame. Considering he starts with a handicap, where we know the end from the start, he manages to keep us riveted for the most part. His victory lies in the fact that he makes us believe that the tragedy could have been prevented. His hint at a larger conspiracy of a syndicate with business interests in the region echoes what Agent Vinod also hinted at, but Sriram Raghavan got carried away with the demands of the box office. Sircar chooses to keep it closer to reality.

There is a hierarchy; there is a protocol, but still the thrills retain their chill. Sircar knows the value of less is more as he recreates the scale of the Civil War without shooting in Sri Lanka. Blending a dramatic situation to the precision of a documentary, Sircar attempts to pull off an Argo and almost succeeds. There is no syrupy sympathy or faux bravado on display. It is not a ‘Tiger’ or ‘Vinod’ kicking his way into an operation. Yes, there is space for a shirt hanging out of trousers after a long day. Of course, amidst all the frenzy, there is time to pacify the officer’s emotional wife when he is kidnapped. Indeed, even the best sniper feels the danger of the unknown when he loses somebody dear to him. Sircar humanises these officers responsible for the country’s security. After a stilted start, John warms up well in the fatigues. It is hard to blend the inherent glamorous side of Nargis with the intent of a war correspondent but Nargis proves that she has more to her than just a prominent pout. However, it is not that John or Nargis have become great actors, overnight. It is the way they are deployed in the operation that makes them worthy of this war. It is hard to hide the hunky John in a covert operation but Sircar manages the task. In fact the first thing he does is to blow his cover!

Also, his minefield of a script is dotted with people who are not actors, whom we are either not used to watching or are not actors at all. They are just familiar faces who carry certain credibility. It takes ‘acting talent’ out of the equation and makes it a believable exercise. Quiz master Siddharth Basu (as the RAW boss), film-maker Prakash Belawadi (as Singh’s superior in Jaffna), seasoned journalist Dibang (an ex-agent) are not the best of actors but their interesting faces hide more than they reveal and this is what is required. However, this trick doesn’t always work. Like the guy who plays Anna or the one who portrays the ex-prime minister or for that matter the Englishman, who operates from Singapore come across as cardboards. Similarly, Sircar hangs on to the decoding of messages for a bit too long, but these are minor foibles in this quest for intercepting the truth.

It doesn’t serve the usual Bollywood brew but this Café does provide a stirring experience.

JOBS

The much awaited biopic of Steve Jobs is here but director Joshua Michael Stern doesn’t seem to believe in Jobs’ philosophy of ‘Think Different’. Like old school biographies, it works in a rather straight fashion capturing the man, who revolutionised the way we use technology, by stacking his achievements one after another giving little insight into the person that he was.

Alright, he comes across as a cold, calculating perfectionist, who had little time to groom personal relationships, who made friends for personal interests, but we seldom get to know the reasons behind his mercurial behaviour.

Writer Matt Whiteley seems driven by an urge to include as much as he can, making the screenplay choppy, reducing Jobs to a narcissistic man. He spends a lot of time in getting together the nuts and bolts of the machines that Jobs created but when it comes to flesh and blood of his equations with his friends and foes, Stern disappoints.

Jobs’ inspirational lines seem moralistic and his non acceptance of his daughter is never reasoned out. It comes as a surprise, for Jobs was an adopted child. Later, his rivalry with Bill Gates is quickly glossed over. How he accepted his daughter Lisa or how a nameless wife entered his life is never discussed. In short, we don’t get to know what made Jobs such an influential figure.

Ashton Kutcher almost nails the physical personality of Jobs. From his walk and gestures to his smile, Kutcher resembles the Apple man. However, it seems he has taken one of the Apple directors’ description of Jobs a little too seriously.

It starts as an earnest attempt, but by the end he wears us down with his emotional overkill. He didn’t have to look far. Josh Gad as Steve Wozniak shows how to keep the flow of saccharine in check. Jobs always maintained that is not just about the machine, it is about reaching out to the heart of the consumer because once you strike there, the possibilities are boundless. Stern got the words, missed out on the import. Not bad, but Steve deserved a better job!