Shoojit Sircar’s espionage thriller makes no concessions for the audience. There is no dumbing down. The writer, makers and director have stuck to the courage of their convictions. In return, they only ask that the audience patiently and attentively watch their story unfold. Madras Café spotlights the under-explored issue of the geo-politics of South Asia orbiting around the civil war of the 1980s that crippled Northern Sri Lanka.
John Abraham surprises you with a quieter, more controlled performance than we have seen from him off late. He plays army man Vikram, sent undercover into Sri Lanka to dig out information on the opposing factions in the civil war – Anna versus Shri. But as his investigations get closer to the truth, the complexities and dark machinations of politics begin to affect his life too.
Madras Café feels somewhat like a docudrama at first. It’s grainy camerawork adding to the gritty, sweaty feeling of events that are spiraling out of Vikram’s control. It takes him a while, and personal loss, to realize that he is a small and insignificant cog in this political machinery. When he can no longer trust anyone else, he takes the assistance of war correspondent Jaya (Nargis Fakhri, far more watchable than her disastrous debut in Rockstar). The interaction between Vikram and Jaya adds to some of the haphazard narrative of the first half – for instance why does Abraham speak in Hindi and Fakhri reply in English? Since they both comprehend each other clearly, why not speak in the same language?
The first half is indeed confusing. Events move swiftly and clumsily along. But the second hour binds the events and story succinctly and solidly. It’s slick, gripping and builds suspense well, even the ‘conspiracy’ constantly referred to by a drunk Vikram who is recounting the story to a priest in flashback is unclear. The conspiracy, we believe, is linked to the killing of the Sri Lankan PM, a few years after a suicide bomber kills herself and the ex-Prime Minister of India (repeatedly referred to as the Ex PM, rather than by a name) as he embarks on a re-election campaign.
It’s quite easy to identify some of the real life characters and incidents on which Madras Café is built. However Sircar tries to touch on too many issues too complex for a 130-minute film. If only he had found focus sooner, this film, which spotlights events that changed the geopolitics of the region, could have been more convincing.