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Review Madras Cafe: A comfort zone for John Abraham,where he can show off his physical prowess

The difficulties of attempting a true-blue Bollywood political thriller are evident in <i>Madras Café</i>.

Written by Shubhra Gupta | New Delhi |
August 23, 2013 3:14:45 pm

Cast: John Abraham,Nargis Fakhri,Prakash Belawade,Siddhartha Basu,Ajay Rathnam,Raashi Khanna

Director: Shoojit Sircar

The Indian Express rating: ***

The difficulties of attempting a true-blue Bollywood political thriller are evident in Madras Café. Director Shoojit Sircar places his film at the height of the civil war in Sri Lanka in the late ’80s and early ’90s,and it culminates in the assassination of an Indian political figure who closely resembles Rajiv Gandhi,but he (Sircar) is clearly constrained in naming names.

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Yes,Sri Lanka is Sri Lanka,and Jaffna is Jaffna,but too often,the characters in the film call it,awkwardly,‘the island’. Not once is Rajiv Gandhi named: the actor who plays him is a look-alike,but he is consistently referred to as the ‘ex-Prime Minister’. Rebel force LTTE,which spearheaded the demand for a ‘separate Tamil homeland (Eelam)’ is called LTF in the film. And LTTE chief Prabhakaran,the man behind Rajiv’s assassination,becomes Anna (Rathnam).

Still,props to Sircar for pulling off,more or less,an I-spy fast-paced saga which has resonance. John Abraham plays a fictional army officer suborned by RAW,who is sent off to Jaffna for a covert operation. Those with long memories will remember how Sri Lanka’s war had spilled over into the international arena,and how the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) had become the target of LTTE ire,and caused much political heartburn in India. India’s attempt at keeping peace in the island nation had been one of Rajiv Gandhi’s missions,which came to a rocky,controversial end,and which,directly and indirectly,caused his own tragic end .

Vikram Singh (Abraham) reports to local superior Bala (Belawade) in Lanka,and tries to break away Anna’s supporters: the idea is to defame Anna,and ensure the return of peace. Meanwhile,a mysterious Indian is busy hatching a conspiracy with some foreign players at a fictional Madras Café: those involved do not want a political solution,their interest is in keeping the strife going,the loss of innocent lives be damned.

The film is fashioned as a flashback,and Abraham’s beginning — bearded and burdened with the memories of having failed to protect ‘his prime minister’— is unpromising. But Sircar gets past his hero’s initial stiltedness by putting him into fatigues and sending him into the conflict zone. This is much more Abraham’s comfort zone,where he can show off his physical prowess,and his ability to share screen space with his co-stars without wanting to dominate them. His meeting with Bala leads him deeper into the maze,where he has to negotiate treachery and personal tragedy and the unravelling of the plot to kill an ex-PM. This is also where he meets British-Indian journo Jaya Sahni (Fakhri),who helps him piece together the conspiracy via some crucial clues.

For the most part,I enjoyed Madras Café. When Abraham sticks to toting a gun,he is fine. Fakhri’s luscious lips are still to the fore (as they were in Rockstar),but she doesn’t do a bad job in playing an intrepid,cigarette-smoking journo reporting from the war zone,in a Hollywood-familiar way: like most helicopter journalists from firang land,she instantly and without any discernible trouble gets an interview with Anna. The film’s tone is mostly pared down,but there’s some Bollywood-style emotion to be had from Vikram’s interactions with his lonely wife (Khanna). I also had fun with some of the bits shot in South and North Block in New Delhi,in which familiar faces from the capital circuit play senior bureaucrats and spy chiefs (quiz man Siddhartha Basu,playing RAW honcho Robin Dutt,has a meaty role and settles well in it,and journalist Dibang has a nice cameo as a small cog in the intelligence wheel: full disclosure,I know these people).

The end-game segment is surprisingly accomplished,in which a bunch of hand-picked LTF cadres prepare for the human bomb (the actor is a dead ringer for Dhanu,the real-life assassin). This explosion is recreated with the right degree of vividness: the glimpse of the intended victim kept to a flash of an over-turned white sports shoe of the sort Rajiv Gandhi favoured,an image which was on our front pages the next day,after that fateful 1991 rally at Sriperumbudur.

In trying to keep it fast-moving,the film turns choppy and confusing in parts. Also,a few of the characters are a tad comic book-y,matching the ludicrousness of some dialogues. The high-flying journalist helping the hero bit feels contrived. But it is so rare to find a director and producer-cum-lead -actor committed to making films that are willing to deal with real-life events — Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination changed India’s tracks in ways we are still dealing with — and say it in a manner that keeps you fairly engaged,that I’d say Madras Café isn’t half bad,even if it could have been better.

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