Research & analysis wins!
Director: Shoojit Sircar
Actors: John Abraham, Nargis Fakhri
By Mayank Shekhar
This is supposed to be a work of fiction. But there is only one way to genuinely enjoy this film, which is to treat it as authentic recreation of a very important though unfortunate event of our contemporary history that we know nothing about. Besides that a woman with a bomb strapped around her waist, in the presence of thousands of people at a political rally, blew up a gentleman who was soon to be re-elected the Prime Minister of India in 1991.
The facts leading up to his assassination make you believe that the filmmakers may have recruited a spy as a screenwriting consultant in here—a retired or serving bureaucrat, preferably an ex or serving R&AW (Research & Analysis Wing) agent—who has supplied details hitherto unknown about how and why the militant Tamil separatist organisation LTTE (represented as LTF) killed off Rajiv Gandhi, referred to throughout as the “Ex PM” here. A lot of the facts I am sure are available in public records – SIT (Special Investigation Team) findings, the Jain Commission Report, which probed Rajiv’s death, for instance. The film partly fictionalises but mostly dramatises the events, laying out a crisp, compelling docu-drama, remaining faithful to the genre, tonally consistent with its serious theme, seldom losing sight of the realism that is essential to convince audiences that what they are seeing is really how it must have originally happened.
The title gives away very little. Madras Cafe is a chain of coffeeshops, I suppose. You see one in Singapore, another in London. The said murder plot, it is suggested, got sealed in Madras Cafe. For those who were too young, or not even born in ’91, which is basically anyone between 14 and 28 years old now, influential bulk of cinema audiences, Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination is too recent an event to have been studied in history. Current affairs anyway is usually about what “the nation wants to know” urgently tonight. As for everyone else, public memory is fairly short as well.
The film provides a brief background to the decades’ long civil war led by LTTE and similar secessionist groups in the north and east of Sri Lanka, given an ethnic conflict between the Sinhalese (mostly Buddhists, a majority community), and the Tamils. The writers stop short of telling us that the violent LTTE—freedom fighters or terrorists—demanding an independent Tamil nation in Sri Lanka were for a fair part funded by the Indian government, under Indira Gandhi’s watch. They used to have designated transit camps inside India. The film doesn’t delve into strong connections between Tamil Nadu mainstream politicians and the banned militant outfit either, so I am not sure exactly what the rag-tag groups in Chennai have been protesting against this film about—that the LTTE killed Rajiv Gandhi? They should be arguing with the Supreme Court.
John Abraham (strikingly sincere, both as producer and actor) plays an Indian spy. He enters the scene when Rajiv’s government, perhaps to undo the wrongs of his mother’s, is in the process of bringing some serenity and sanity into Sri Lanka. A peace accord has been signed between the two sovereign governments. The Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) has been deployed. As it is with villainous pawns propped up by countries for “strategic” or economic reasons, the LTTE chief Prabhakaran (no different from America’s creation Osama, or the “Pakistan Taliban” next-door) becomes the Frankenstein’s monster, ready to bite the hand that used to feed him once, unwilling to recognise any peace treaty.
As the head of LTF, Prabhakaran is known as Anna in this film. John is Vikram, whose short-term assignment is to ensure an election in Sri Lanka’s Northern Province. The only way he can do this is by playing dirty with Prabhakaran’s LTTE itself. There is a huge, impressively hand-picked cast of characters placed around the top Indian Army sleuth—some of who he can trust, some not. While setting up base for his swift operation, he comes across a foreign journalist of Indian origin (Nargis Fakhri, hired for her hotness alone).
She speaks to him in English. Subtitles appear. He replies to her in Hindi. You would imagine this mix-up would be more the case with the Tamils. It isn’t. But language was always going to be an issue for this guy. As it would be for a Hindi film set in Jaffna, or Japan. You don’t mind it much. Similar Hollywood movies can get away with English being the language of global aspiration, so everybody can speak broken bits of it.
This is probably the first Bollywood film that looks closely at India’s political involvement outside of its own shores. The director (Shoojit Sircar: Yahaan, Vicky Donor) ably spins this as a war film, visually referenced to near perfection, yet scales things down to the details of a tight espionage thriller set among R&AW agents between Jaffna and New Delhi.
Santosh Sivan’s The Terrorist (1998) on the same tragedy was a more personal film, a cinematographer’s take. This is a researcher’s delight. The ultimate baap of this genre is Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991). Through inferences and strong evidences, using classified documents, it categorically proved to regular public the CIA’s role in the death of its much loved US President. It shook up America.
This film doesn’t conclusively establish a new angle or fresh motive behind Rajiv Gandhi’s death, besides merely pointing towards western corporate interests. But it makes you search deeper. It’s been over 22 years since. Who the hell gained so much from Rajiv’s assassination? The LTTE is practically defunct now. After the film, we sat and discussed these things for a couple of hours. I’ve bookmarked a few articles on the web already, can’t remember the last time a Bollywood film made me do that.