In the 1990s, Vikram (John Abraham), an officer in the Indian army, is assigned to undergo covert operations by an intelligence agency. Instructed to break up a rebel group on an island in Sri Lanka, the officer soon discovers a conspiracy with the help of a journalist (Nargis Fakhri).
Director Shoojit Sircar’s Madras Café embraces the same vivid, political thriller stylings of Ben Affleck’s Oscar winner Argo, in the service of a no less compelling narrative.
a cracking piece of international cinema
The bold decision to set the film against the brutal Tamil civil war of the late 1980s has proved a double-edged sword for the producers, amongst them leading man John Abraham. Lingering animosity in Tamil Nadu has worked against the film; threatened with violence by radical Tamil supporters, cinema chains in the southern state are not screening Madras Café; an exhibitor in the UK also followed suit, and offered refunds to patrons who had pre-bought tickets.
Political fallout notwithstanding, Sircar and his screenwriters Shubhendu Bhattacharya, Juhi Chaturvedi and Somnath Dey have crafted a cracking piece of international cinema using the volatility of the conflict’s legacy to maximum effect. The principal creatives also take a definitive stand with the Tamil freedom fighters’ alleged involvement in the real-life assassination of former Indian P.M. Rajiv Gandhi, an act that continues to fuel a rift between the north and south and which is central to the plot of the film (and the controversy which dogs it).
Foregoing all but the slightest hint of Bollywood melodrama, a terrific Abraham plays Indian covert operative Vikram Singh, who’s assigned to negotiate an under-the-radar settlement with the revolutionary soldiers of the Liberation of Tamil Front (modelled after the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam). His primary aim is to seek out its deeply-embedded figurehead, Anna Bhaskaran (Ajay Ratnam, an accomplished Tamil actor channelling Tamil Tiger founder/leader Velupillai Prabhakaran).
The first half of the film has Singh establishing a line of communication with the rebel jungle base via a network of local contacts at all levels of society. These are punchy, smartly written scenes that establish the all-business approach of the covert team. After the interval (which drew groans from the audience, who rightly felt the tension broken by the 'intermission’ sign’s fade-in), Singh’s investigation uncovers coded messages detailing the planned murder of a high-ranking official. The revelation of the hidden message is intercut superbly with scenes of the death squad making its preparations (a sequence that recalls key elements of Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana).
Driven by a pulsating, omnipresent score by Shantanu Moitra and first-rate production values from all involved (especially editor Chandrashekhar Prajapati’s slicing of action scenes), Madras Café will ensure Sircar leaps ahead in the estimation of Indian cinema aficionados. His last effort, the perfectly likable rom-com box office hit Vicky Donor, gave no indication he was capable of such resolute, tough-minded political drama; it’s probably one of the biggest film-to-film progressions in recent memory.
All support players deliver, notably debutant Rashi Khanna as Singh’s young wife and Nargis Fakrhi as the career-minded, London-based journalist who crosses paths with Vikram at opportune moments. But this is very much John Abraham’s film, the actor adapting his matinee idol presence to help shade his role in a complex, occasionally immoral light; the compromises he must make to serve his superiors’ agenda is often at odds with his instincts. Abraham also steps up to the physical challenges of the role, which occasionally requires he take a very convincing beating.