Firstly, one has to commend John Abraham and Shoojit Sircar for attempting a gritty even if fictionalised political thriller like Madras Cafe. A brave film to make and one can’t really fault Sircar, the craftsman who has meticulously put the film together, with some fine juxtaposition of fact and fiction footage, and considering that one knows the final outcome, he still gets the edge-of-the-seat suspense spot-on in the climax as the team races fervently against time to prevent the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, oh sorry the ‘Ex-PM’. This is no mean achievement.
That said, overall, the film does belie its high expectations. A sluggish, first half that is convoluted, at times confusing (while trying to appear intricately plotted), at times overly simplified clumsily through that much misused device in our films – the explain-it-all voice-over – lets down the film. As also do the three central performances. They are simply awful and go a long way in making the film fall short of being there. Sadly, after Vicky Donor, which I rated as my best Hindi film of the year 2012, Madras Cafe will not be the one when we look at the Best of 2013. And while Sircar does handle a vastly different genre pretty well this time round, lets just say that a Zero Dark Thirty it isn’t.
The film gets off to a clunky start as a guilt-eaten, gone to seed, and terribly made-up John Abraham tells his tale to a priest in Kasauli. We learn from him how, he a military officer, was sent in to Jaffna in Sri Lanka at the thick of the Civil War there by the R&AW to help ensure that the power of the leader of the LTTE, oh sorry LTF, Velupillai Prabhakaran, oops Anna Baskaran, is diluted so that the Indian Peace Keeping Force can do its job and elections can take place. Much of the first half gives us the backdrop to the ethnic crisis in Sri Lanka but resorts to give us the information through a largely self explanatory voice over, which tells but doesn’t show. Though obviously fiction, the film, for all its research and attention to detail, simplifies the entire issue and its politics, and the characters are drawn all too broadly in terms of Black and White without really delving into the complexities. The fun for an audience of working out the plot and its red herrings is thus taken away with the voice over telling you everything, a big no-no in thrillers. There are many stilted dialogue exchanges between John and Nargis and even unbelievable moment as such as the LTTE (LTF damn it) second in command believing John to be a journalist when he has been on the organization’s hit list.
The film really comes into its own and does take off solidly once the main plot kicks in and John and the R&AW team realize there is a bigger conspiracy afoot and the LTF has planned the assassination of the Ex-PM (there I got it right this time). The razor sharp editing between the killers and the team trying to first figure out the exact plot and then their attempts to prevent the killing and the build up to the event where it all happens, is all crafted superbly. This is really where Madras Cafe scores.
It’s the central performances that kill much of the good in the film. John Abraham and Nargis Fakhri are simply woeful. They are totally blank and wooden and consistently weak through the entire film. John’s ineptness as an actor, both in his flat voice over and his dismal act, totally kill even nicely conceived scenes by Sircar like his private moments of grief following the killing of his wife, or his despondency at the explosion site following his failure to save the ex-PM. Leave alone the scenes where he has to act, John can’t even handle those where he has to look dazed and expressionless. Siddhartha Basu as the head of R&AW is another disastrous casting blunder. At the positive end, Prakash Belawadi as the mole Bala, and Ajay Rathnam as Anna Baskaran more than leave their mark on the film.
No doubt, the film is (expectedly) technically polished. Hats off to the technical department – from the camera department to the editing, music, sound design, action, and production design, who have put together a superior product.
If only like their earlier film, Vicky Donor, had John Abraham simply stuck to the production side and appeared perhaps only in the end titles with more competent actors cast in the leading roles, Madras Cafe, for all its issues, could have been a cracker-jack of a film! Disappointingly, it ends up more as a film that needs to be supported and seen for daringly trying something off the formula-ridden Bollywood path and sincerely sticking to its story requirements. Still, it’s worth seeing a Madras Cafe, any day any time over most of the illustrious ‘100 crorers’, even if it ends up as a somewhat-there-but-not-quite-there type of film.
Hindi, Thriller, Drama, Color