Sunday, 25 August 2013

Movie Review: Madras Cafe

Image courtesy of Wiki
I was barely eight when Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated. Even after more than twenty years, I still recall the pall of gloom that descended on that small, remote town in Arunachal Pradesh. Those days were long before the advent of cable TV. Newspapers usually were dated three days back by the time they reached our sleepy town, so naturally, not much was known about what had transpired at that fateful rally. 

I recall the men, engaged in intense discussions, and the women, fighting to control their tears. What, everyone wondered, could possibly incite the brutal killing of a man that was loved by the entire country.  I was too young to understand political machinations, all I realized was the permanence of death, and that the handsome man we used to see on Doordarshan was no more. 

I remember watching the funeral on TV, the Gandhi siblings putting on a brave, dignified face, as people across the country wept, some openly, others surreptitiously. Since then, numerous people have been arrested, mercy petitions have presented, rejected, and then presented again. Many theories have been floated, debated and dismissed. Perhaps we will never know the truth. But now, here’s a movie that explores the geopolitical events of that age to understand the motivations that ultimately led to the assassination.

Madras Café is directed by Shoojit Sircar, of Vicky Donor fame - and what a contrast this movie is, as compared to his earlier effort. It is stark, gritty and unrelenting. Major Vikram Singh is sent to war torn Jaffna as an undercover agent to help the Indian government achieve the aim of conducting peaceful elections in Sri Lanka. His mission is to encourage an uprising against Anna, who considers himself to be a revolutionary and has built up a massive army named the LTF. 

Madras Cafe Trailer

The rest of the movie deftly combines fact and fiction and takes you through the ideological differences of the two factions, the capitalist approach to the necessity of war, and the triumph of greed over morals. The film underlines how civil war, while being the scourge of any nation, fills the coffers of the big defence and armaments companies.  The heartbreaking images of pain and suffering are haunting. It is implied that while the Indian government is intent on restoring peace, someone in the chain is hand in glove with the corporations, and is providing inside information on troop movements and plans, so the rebels are always a step ahead.

The film moves across Sri Lanka, India and Bangkok, stitching the taut storyline together. A word about the editing - if the first half is well paced, the second half is positively a high speed thrill ride. As the tension builds, the soundtrack is in tandem, adding flair without being intrusive at any point. For a movie to create this kind of suspense while telling the story of a well-known and still remembered tragedy is a triumph of film-making. 

Madras Café is anchored by a superb cast. John Abraham playing the role of Vikram Singh, does full justice to his role, always intense, always restrained, no over the top antics or needless bravado. It was a delight to watch the suave Siddhartha Basu as Robin Dutt, the RAW Chief, while Piyush Pandey was impressive too. For me, the one character that stood out was Bala, an Indian intel officer based in Sri Lanka. Prakash Belawade gets under the skin of the hard drinking, aggressive character and delivers a great performance. SP, another intel officer, also makes an impact, as do the LTF suicide bombers. Their preparation for the assassination is handled realistically, showing the inevitable attack of nerves as the hour looms closer. Nargis Fakhri seemed to be the only weak link, her performance slightly wooden, her role not very well defined. Ruby, Major Vikram Singh’s wife, seems to have been included in the plot as an afterthought, and does not have much screen time or relevance. Also, the flashback style storytelling was unnecessary, as was John Abraham’s disheveled look in those scenes. 

These minor gripes aside, Madras Café made for a riveting watch. Finally, Bollywood has managed to churn out a political thriller that is taut, hard hitting and sensitive at the same time. I would recommend you go catch this movie at the theater. It might be a while before something as good comes along.

My rating: 4.5/5

This is a guest post by Deep Chakraborty who is on the wrong side of thirty, living in the happy denial that all one needs to live a good life is an abundance of books and the opportunity to make music.

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