Madras Cafe is a sinewy and riveting espionage thriller that entertains without having to play to the gallery.
That isn’t the only departure from norm that director Shoojit Sircar makes. He also attempts a risky tightrope walk between staying true to recent geopolitical history and the need to serve up an imagined, dramatised spy story.
He succeeds on both counts. At no point does Madras Cafe appear to be in danger of losing its balance and plummeting into a void. Sircar hits the right strides, and blends fact and fiction with great narrative aplomb and visual flair.
Madras Cafe draws upon actual events that are still fresh in the nation’s collective memory and crafts a compelling and fast-paced political drama. The story hinges on a conspiracy theory that links the assassination of a pacifist ex-Prime Minister to the machinations of giant corporations and foreign agencies out to destabilise the subcontinent.
That central plot trigger might seem stretched and fanciful to some, but in terms of both style and treatment, Madras Cafe is remarkably restrained and yet makes for compelling viewing.
There are no heroes and villains here for Sircar is clearly not interested in turning the film into an oversimplified, hackneyed good versus evil yarn.
It is driven more by its overarching theme – it rests on a conflict of attrition between ethnic and political opponents that has no winners or losers – than by its characters, intriguing as they might be.
At the centre of the drama are an undercover intelligence agent Vikram Singh (John Abraham) and a London-based war correspondent Jaya Sahni (Nargis Fakhri) who are up against daunting odds in a war zone. Neither, however, possesses the attributes of larger-than-life daredevils.
Madras Cafe stands apart from run-of-the-mill smack-downs because it does not celebrate vacuous militaristic machismo.
What the film does instead is bring home the horrors of a civil war and its human ramifications.
The writers (Somnath Dey, Shubendu Bhattacharya) obviously have their hearts in the right place. And so undeniably does the director.
He constructs an account of what might have happened in the last two and a half years leading up to the elimination of an Indian political leader by the world’s first-ever human bomb.
From the opening scene of a brutal terror attack on a bus in Jaffna to the climactic explosion that shatters the hero’s hopes of stopping a heinous act, Madras Cafe does not let go of its grip on the audience for even a moment.
Its muscles stem primarily from its steadfast eschewal of narrative conventions that are a part and parcel of spy thrillers.
For one, the male protagonist is no superhero primed to perform acts of logic-defying bravado. The only ‘grand’ statement of intent that he is allowed to make is, “I will do it my way”. It turns out that it easier said than done for he is in a game that is controlled by forces and agencies that are far bigger than him.
He is only an ordinary army officer who is sent to strife-torn northern Sri Lanka on an undercover mission in the early 1990s after the pullout of the Indian peacekeeping forces from the island.
His brief is to spread disaffection within the ranks of an intransigent rebel group that refuses to fall in line with the peace accord.
He has the official mandate from his bosses in New Delhi (Siddharth Basu as the RAW chief, Piyush Pandey as the Cabinet Secretary, among other) to adopt the methods that he deems fit.
On the ground, however, treachery is rife and leaks from within the organisation pushes him repeatedly into deadly traps laid by the adversary. It is a world where danger lurks at every corner and violence erupts without much warning. Worst of all, in the shadows, it is difficult to tell friend from foe.
Most of the real historical markers are all in place and the filmmaker takes only minor liberties with issues of chronology and detail. But the names given to the key individuals and organisations engaged in the Sri Lankan civil war are strictly in the realms of fiction.
The Indian Prime Minister who signs the agreement that sends the Indian army to Sri Lanka is shown a few times – he has a receding hairline but is taller and leaner than the political personage that inevitably comes to mind. However, he is never named.
The main Tamil rebel outfit that refuses to be disarmed ahead of a provincial council election is led by a man called Anna Bhaskaran, who looks uncannily like Velupillai Prabhakaran.
Although Madras Cafe has not been shot on real Sri Lankan locations, the production design, the camerawork and the editing ensure that what unfolds on the screen never looks less than authentic.
John Abraham, cast against type, throws all his weight behind the character of the R&AW agent who loses more than he gains in the line of duty. As an actor, he comes up trumps.
Nargis Fakhri, playing a journo who converses only English, strikes the right notes.
Debutante Rashi Khanna makes an impact in a brief but significant appearance as the army man’s wife.
The other characters that complete the canvas – sundry secret agents, soldiers, militants and bureaucrats – are all identifiable figures who look and sound like real people.
Madras Cafe is not your average Bollywood thriller. It crackles with genuine energy and is marked by true empathy for humanity.
It is an unqualified triumph.