Film makers have a great role in making history relevant to the masses. Especially, in the times we live, when not many have the time to read about events that shape our today. The film maker has an added edge, the power to give a visual element, recreate an event and leave it etched in the minds of the audience. So, when they decide to make a film, on an event that has played an emotional part in a nation’s conscience, it is important for them to recognise the enormous responsibility they are signing up for. Putting out a disclaimer “That all characters in the film are fictitious” does not absolve the film maker of this responsibility.
Yes, not all film makers take that responsibility seriously. But, the point is simple – they have the right to make a film and the audience has a right to judge their effort. The trouble is when I am refused even the right to watch a film and make that judgement. The trouble is when a few irrational, incompetent, ill informed propagandists can stop me from making my own judgement. The trouble is when I do not even know if the film is worth so much thought.
Since, I do not live within the geographical confines of the ‘Tamil Nadu’ I did have the right to see ‘Madras Cafe’. I started writing this review because a fellow journalist suggested I should. But, I also want to write it because those who could not watch the film must know that the fuss around it is not worth it. The irony is that the film says nothing, nothing at all, that is either contrarian or converse to history as it has been told to us. In fact, my only objection is that it does not say anything controversial and it could and should have been much better and said much more. It is just another film. I was disappointed but, that’s just me.
Before I make a brief review of the film, may I just remind all the protesting propagandists, that the LTTE had admitted its role in the Rajiv assassination and their chief was convicted by Indian courts and was declared a proclaimed offender. Anton Balasingham even made a desperate effort at expressing regret for that dastardly act. So, two decades later, when a film is made stating this very fact you have no reason to object. In fact the film says nothing against the ‘Tamil Cause’ it even tracks its genesis to the 83 riots. It simply reiterates a widely accepted version of events.
Kevin Costner starrer ‘JFK’ is one of the finest films made on the conspiracy theories behind the Kennedy assassination. I hope, someday, we make something as powerful on the Rajiv Gandhi assassination. As for ‘Madras Cafe’ it is nowhere near a master piece or a memorable film I would want in my collection. Unfortunately, it was based on a topic that deserved much better. There were moments when I thought it was a tragic joke and there were moments when it was gripping.
To start with, John Abraham just did not fit the part of a RAW agent in the first half. In fact, I thought the whole portrayal of a RAW agent in a war zone was pathetic. That a journalist (Nargis Fakhri) would be aware of his activities made it even more hilarious. I mean, we can't be so raw while portraying the RAW. It would not have taken too much hard work to find out the real nature of the operations of the LTTE, the RAW and the Sri Lankan forces. The fact that the research was superficial was proven by the omission of portrayal of important events like Pirabhakaran’s visit to Delhi and a failed attempt on Rajiv Gandhi's life in Colombo. The refusal to make the plot more complex by studying details of the investigations also reflected in the final script. None of this was even touched upon and would have only added to the script. The trouble is that the film made the plot, the issue, superficial and simple.
Staying with the first half, I must mention that the most hilarious part was when the RAW chief has a meeting with the number 2 in the ‘tigers’ hierarchy. The conversation that unfolds is hilarious and it was as if the director just needed a small link to get to the next bit of the story. Here again the director decided to add his imagination to history. But, at the end of the day it is a piece of fiction which comes with a disclaimer and so we forgive the confusion between fact, fiction and the marriage between the two.
In the second half the movie does get better. Here you have the chatter between Jaffna, London, Singapore, Bangkok and Chennai. The assassination conspiracy begins to unfold and as the plot grips the actors lose their grip. Laboured acting by those playing key roles like a source in Bangkok (Dibang), RAW Chief (Siddaratha Basu) proved costly. Our very own RAW agent was better in the second half and a worthy mention in the acting department was Prakash Belawadi’s performance as the RAW Chennai station chief. The conspiracy plot left me wanting more. The technical side had done their job well. The editing and cinematography were particularly commendable. I just wish the director had worked as hard on the conspiracy and history as he did on making it into a film. Even the actors who played the role of SL Tamils, who facilitate the assassins, were not true to the Tamil accent.
The trouble is that I am comparing it with a JFK or a Valkyrie and that is extremely unfair. Net -net it was high time we had someone attempt a film on the assassination. I just wish it was a better attempt. I may wish it was more fact than fiction but, the bottom line is simple – there is nothing wrong about the film and something wrong, terribly wrong, with those who are protesting against its release. History has many versions and Madras Cafe is just a film maker’s imagination of partial facts from widely accepted versions of a tragic event. Let it pass.