With the chop-chop of helicopters flying across the red disk of a rising or setting sun, Madras Cafe is sometimes stylistically derivative as a movie on a hopeless war (Apocalypse Now), but it works well as a thriller. After labouring the point that Sri Lanka was India’s Vietnam, director Shoojit Sircar counts down the time from the Indian Peace-Keeping Force’s (IPKF’s) withdrawal from the island to the assassination of the Indian Prime Minister who disastrously sent the IPKF into that civil war.
This countdown is tightly scripted and edited and though there are lapses in a few performances along the way, the film is well designed. Certainly, you can debate the authenticity of the geopolitical conspiracy in the movie that links international arms dealers, South and East Asian economies and the internal politics of the LTTE to the final call on the PM’s assassination. But it is emotions that the film plays with, the path of inevitability that it careens down with the recklessness and high velocity of fate.
How could it have been stopped? Madras Cafe is about failure at every single stage, involving every side, in a disastrous war. Since there are no winners, the former PM’s security fails too, and the fictional Major Vikram Singh (John Abraham), first on assignment to RAW in Jaffna and then desperately trying to get to the PM before the suicide bomber, is in a race that he just can’t win. The details seem completely authentic, even though in all likelihood they are not.
By toying with the ifs and buts of decisions and revisions that a minute will reverse, the last hour of this film builds tension to a crescendo. This makes for a good thriller. But what takes the movie to another level, to an insight on the futility of individual human action once the dogs of war have been let slip, is the sadness that permeates the film. This is the bravest Hindi film in a long time.