Shoojit Sircar directs John Abraham in Madras Café based on the Rajiv Gandhi assassination story. Sircar coming off the tremendously successful Vicky Donor has huge expectations to live up to and doing a volte face by going international espionage and political drama way after the relatively light hearted Vicky Donor has set himself a herculean task to deliver.
The story tracks the 2 and a half year leading up to the assassination of India’s former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and the Sri Lankan Civil war which acts as the catalyst for the assassination. The movie opens with an almost unrecognizable John Abraham (took me until he first spoke to realize who it was) walking up to a priest to confess the burdens of the life he has left behind. What starts of as a powerful opening sequence with John Abraham living through the nightmares of the PTSD he suffers after the brutality he witnessed in Sri Lanka is left half-baked with his confession to the priest who is terribly mis-cast, here someone like Darshan Jariwala would have been wonderful and not felt as out of place as the priest does.
The movie can be summed up as one part great and one part missed opportunity. The problems are not so much with the lead acting pair of John Abraham and Nargis Fakhri who turn in credible performances but with the script that is for the most part confused as to what story thread it wants to focus on. Story lines are pursued just to be left open ended. Characters are asked to vocalize every inner working of their mind lest the audience “doesn’t get it”; the relentless voiceovers make for a tiresome and lazy story telling. And one key ingredient of an espionage thriller has got to be the feint – leading the audience to believe that one character is the bad guy while the end result is something completely different or at least letting the audience in on the secret but letting the characters in the story struggle with the double cross till the final reveal. Madras Café fails to achieve what Kahaani managed so effortlessly. The double agent is given up with no effort made at creating a cover for him.
Scripting issues aside the movie is shot beautifully with many wonderful shots. The brutality of war has never been captured more effectively than in this movie the shots which were clearly referential from the National Geographic library ( it got a credits mention as well) are fantastic and they serve as a better context setting for the civilian struggle in Sri Lanka than the entire first half put together. A Voice over with those images would have served the movie better with the rest of the focus set on the assassination. The shots of the sunrises and sunsets with helicopter silhouette are reminiscent of Full Metal Jacket; the shots of the soldiers walking in a single file again silhouetted against the sky are reminders of Saving Private Ryan. While referential these are still beautiful on their own merit. The luscious shots of the emerald isle, the shots of the colonial Cochin and the claustrophobic Madras are beautifully framed by the cinematographer Kamaljeet Negi. The music by Shantanu Moitra is also a perfect accompaniment to some of the most poignant scenes of the movie.
The third act is where the movie picks up steam and I wish the director had put in a little more effort in developing the first two thirds of the movie and the end result would have been one of the best retelling of an important chapter in India’s political story. Still Sircar delivers a decent thriller with some really goose-bump inducing moments and telling an important story that not many might not know.
Don’t watch it if you are expecting a JFK type tout thriller , watch it for what is undoubtedly one of the best looking movie with decent acting and a very important story that is an important chapter in Indian Political annals.