Madras Cafe: An intelligence failure

August 23, 2013

(Any opinions expressed here are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters)

After last year’s clever and heart-warming comedy “Vicky Donor”, filmmaker Shoojit Sircar switches genres with “Madras Cafe”, a thriller about the Sri Lankan conflict, India’s role in the civil war, and the repercussions of that war on India’s politics and history.

To try and deal with such a controversial subject is commendable and Sircar and co-writer Juhi Chaturvedi should be complimented. Unfortunately, intentions aside, “Madras Cafe” doesn’t deserve too many compliments.

John Abraham stars in this leaden film as an army officer sent to Sri Lanka at the height of the civil war to launch covert operations targeting the leader of the biggest Tamil separatist outfit (called LTF in the film).

Vikram Singh walks about Jaffna with a swagger, sporting a Ray-Ban and looking completely out of place. He somehow visits a top guerrilla leader deep in the jungle, pretending to be a reporter even after his cover is blown, and turns to an actual journalist (Nargis Fakhri) to extract the smallest bit of information.

“Madras Cafe” is essentially divided into two parts: The first, where Vikram Singh’s Sri Lanka operation goes wrong, and the second, where its repercussions are felt. The second half, which refers to a conspiracy to kill a former Indian prime minister, is especially ridiculous.

In one scene, John Abraham’s character tells his boss (Siddharth Basu, in an unintentionally hilarious role) that teams from Sri Lanka have landed in Tamil Nadu to carry out the assassination. In the next scene, Basu’s character is seen instructing his men to keep a close watch on any suspicious movement along the coast. A case of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted.

This is a thriller with loopholes at almost every twist in the tale. The pace is languid and most importantly, the film remains neither here nor there. Sircar wants to depict real-life incidents such as the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi and Indian peace-keeping efforts in Sri Lanka but stops short of naming anyone or taking a stand. So, we have references to the assassination threat and whispers of “foreign agencies” helping the Tamil liberation outfit, but all of it is vague and shrouded in ambiguity.

By playing safe, Sircar’s film doesn’t have enough excitement or edge-of-the-seat action to make you want to forgive the loopholes and flaws. Nor does it have a ring of authenticity or seem like a retelling of history because of the filmmaker’s reluctance to name anyone.

The acting is as average as the film is – Abraham is earnest but doesn’t rise above what is a one-dimensional role. Nargis Fakhri’s character is also poorly sketched and doesn’t have much screen time.

This is a film where even the head of the Indian intelligence gets to know the latest news from TV channels, not from his own department. I don’t want to hazard a guess as to whether that is a statement on Indian intelligence operations, the speed at which Indian TV news channels operate, or the lack of thought that was put into the script.

Go only if you must.

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