35mm Reflections: MADRAS CAFE (2013)

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There is a point in Shoojit Sircar’s Madras Café when, amidst a montage of close-range shots of the crowd assembled to hear a political rally addressed by an ex-Prime Minister about to be assassinated, there is a roughly three-second shot of Vikram Singh, played by John Abraham, helplessly looking around for the unknown assassins, while one of them, in the guise of a civilian, slips away past him, unnoticed. It is a brief, and yet telling, scene about the nature of threats to national security in a post-Cold War global scenario—there are no known enemies anymore.

Much like this scene, the film unfolds like a conspiracy. The main action of this movie is based around the Sinhalese-Tamil conflict in Sri Lanka in the 1980s, as well as India’s involvement in this war through the IPKF, which constitutes one of the darkest chapters for Indian foreign policy after 1971. There are references to many major events, from the rise of Vellupillai Prabhakaran and the LTTE, to the assassinations of Rajiv Gandhi and Ranasinghe Premadasa. However, Sircar brings to light many sub-themes that have had, or are still having, an impact on contemporary politics.

Honestly, after watching this movie, I felt like applauding the CBFC. They get a lot of flak for the movies they censor (and quite often, don’t censor), so it is quite unusual, and heartening, to see a film like Madras Café release.

To his credit, Sircar, along with his fellow writers Somnath Dey and Shubhendu Bhattacharya, actually succeeds, as far as research goes, to keep events as close to reality as possible. Those with no knowledge of the Sri Lankan war will probably feel a bit lost during the introductory sequences of Vikram’s journey into Jaffna. Names of important characters have been changed, but they resemble the real-life characters so much that you actually figure everyone out after a point of time. Another plus point in favour of Sircar’s research is that though he keeps things fictitious, he does not experiment with the timeline. So, the climactic “assassination”, that is the spine of the movie’s narrative, occurs in the same year as the real-life event. Basically, Sircar dives straight into the complicated involvement of the IPKF in the conflict, as it is the most relevant point for his protagonist to start his journey.

Goaded by his bosses in the highest echelons of Indian intelligence, Vikram sets out to Jaffna in the first half of the movie to play a dangerous cat-and-mouse game with the LTF (no prizes for guessing which organization it resembles) and its aggressive-yet-charismatic leader Anna Bhaskaran, in order to fulfil New Delhi’s (read Rajiv Gandhi’s) dream of setting up a stable provincial council and score big for Indian diplomacy in South Asian politics. However, Anna and the LTF want a separate Tamil state in Sri Lanka, and they are prepared to go to any lengths to achieve their aims (read foreign help).

Vikram tries to engage Anna’s main opponent, Shri, into joining forces with the India government in order to get the LTF to surrender their arms, by promising all military support for him. However, when a scheduled arms-drop for Shri, being overseen by Vikram, goes horribly wrong, Vikram realizes there is a leak within his own organization RAW. Also, since his cover has been blown by now, both Shri and Anna refuse to cooperate with him.

With help from war correspondent Jaya Sahni (Nargis Fakhri), Vikram sets out to investigate the leak, but is captured and tortured by the LTF. However, he does manage to learn of a conspiracy being planned by the LTF.

If Sircar uses the first half of Madras Café as a commentary on civilians being the collateral damage in a war-zone, it is in the second half that the central conspiracy of the movie comes alive. With the action shifting between Jaffna, Madras, London, Bangkok and other cities, the movie becomes a hard-hitting critique of the notion of “hegemony”. In a geo-political arena where the lines between structural power and soft power have long diminished, diplomacy is shown to be jostling with MNCs and other powers (read Western influence) for “strategic control” over territories. In such circumstances, Vikram tries to a) investigate the leak, and b) uncover the LTF’s conspiracy. All of which results in a deadly, heart-stopping climax.

However, I had two concerns with the narrative. One was the entire ideological stance of the movie. Sure, the movie doesn’t take sides in the war. However, you can’t help but think what a good thing it might have been, if Sircar had not slipped into the war in medias res, and had instead given a brief description of how and why the conflict in Sri Lanka started. In the absence of this exposition, two things happen. Firstly, people unaware of the conflict are caught unawares by the mass killings and exodus of Tamils. Secondly, it also (maybe unintentionally) portrays Anna (and therefore Vellupillai Prabhakaran), as the proverbial “bad guy”.

The other problem with the narrative is the problematic of language taking place in the conversations between Vikram and Jaya. It’s quite obvious that Vikram can speak English himself, and comprehends Jaya’s heavily-Anglicized English, and yet, he chooses to respond to her in Hindi. Why?

If Madras Café looks and feels like an up-to-date gritty thriller, it is also a compliment to the movie’s technical crew. Kamaljeet Negi, who made Delhi come alive with his camerawork in Vicky Donor, succeeds here in creating a sombre mood with his muted sepia-tinted frames. Chandrashekhar Prajapati keeps the tension going with his razor-sharp editing. The dialogues by Juhi Chaturvedi are devoid of abuses and cuss-words, and yet they sting. Manohar Verma’s action is raw and rugged, with none of the James Bond nonsense. Though there are no songs in the movie (Papon’s Maula sun le re plays during the end-credits), Shantanu Moitra’s background score only adds to the air of intrigue around the narrative.

As far as acting goes, here’s a special word for John Abraham—the guy has come a long way. From being the “wooden actor” who played obsessive lovers (Jism, Aetbaar), villains (Dhoom, Zinda) and the pathetic comic (Garam Masala, Housefull 2), it is refreshing to see him in his new avatar as an actor-producer. He brings soul and grit to his depiction of Vikram. Nargis Fakhri, after that disastrous debut in Rockstar, is also very believable as the hard-as-nails Jaya.

But if you really want to applaud acting, look no further than the ensemble cast. People who had criticized Sircar’s casting choices on seeing the first trailer, will eat humble pie when they see the movie. Siddhartha Basu as intelliengence boss RD, Prakash Belawadi as the Lanka desk-head Bala, Ajay Ratnam as Anna, Arijit Dutta as Anna’s deputy Malya, Rashi Khanna as Vikram’s wife Ruby, Piyush Pandey as the Cabinet Secretary—everyone is top-notch. Well-known Hindi journalist Dibang also excels in a small role.

Honestly, if you want to make a genuine film reach the Rs. 100-crore mark, go and watch this movie. It’s not flawless, but it’s one of the best thrillers to have come out of Hindi cinema. Make a visit to this café. And relive history.

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35mm REFLECTIONS: BA Pass

A still from BA PASS.

A still from BA PASS.

 

Celluloid adaptations of literary works might sound grand on paper, but executing them is tough. Directors either get it right (think Maqbool, Omkara, The Namesake, Life of Pi and so on), or mess up with the ethos of the work (Issaq, Hello  and other inanities). Which is why a good adaptation of a literary work needs to be applauded, if one ever comes across something exceptional.

 

Ajay Bahl’s debut film BA Pass is exceptional. Very exceptional, actually. You’ll find a lot of reviews floating around in cyberspace about how much of a gripping thriller it is. You’ll find testimonials by other acclaimed directors about the film, dominating its press material. But nothing, literally nothing, prepares you for the deviousness and numerous betrayals that occur one after the other.

 

Firstly, you need to applaud this debutant director’s guts and vision. He bases the movie on a short story, “The Railway Aunty”, written by a Brooklyn-based author, Mohan Sikka. The short story is part of an anthology of short stories edited by Hirsh Sawhney titled “Delhi Noir”, and published as part of the Akashic Noir series. I read the anthology a few months back, and I can vouch for the fact that the book actually makes you feel scared about taking a trip to the rajdhani. (If you’re still interested, the book is available on all major shopping sites.)

 

The story, in spite of initially reminding the viewer of the Dustin Hoffman-starrer The Graduate, is highly intriguing. Mukesh, a young boy who has just lost his parents, is packed off to the railway colony in Delhi’s Paharganj area, to live with his bua. Mukesh’s own precarious subject-position in the family, his struggle for a better future for his two sisters, as well as the BA Pass course he gets into at DU—a khichdi of different courses, as he thinks it to be—only deepen his anxieties about his existence. His only source of comfort is playing chess in the Paharganj cemetery, with the bubbly caretaker Johnny.

 

Enter Sarika, the eponymous “railway aunty” of the story, who sees Mukesh at one of the numerous kitty-parties thrown by his bua for the benefit of all the influential “aunties”—wives who can charm their railway-officer husbands into granting the ever-welcome “promotion”. One day, when Mukesh is sent to Sarika’s house on an errand, he gets seduced by Sarika, and they start an affair. In the meanwhile, Mukesh also slowly gets involved with “servicing” other aunties in the neighbourhood. After this, all hell breaks loose.

 

I will not divulge more details about the plot because this is where Ajay Bahl’s direction takes over. Sikka’s story is rich in detail, and therefore lends itself to a film adaptation more seamlessly than other works. But Bahl deserves kudos, simply because he fashions a screenplay from this short-story without sacrificing even a single iota of its essence. For me, it felt like watching a more visceral and violent version of Mukesh’s struggles on the big screen.

 

Bahl knows that with a delicate subject like Sikka’s story, the direction and narrative have to be spot-on. Which is why he takes the very wise decision of not deviating from the story in the first half of the movie. And this is his biggest masterstroke—he uses the first half to set up the main characters and their moves, almost like one of Mukesh’s chess-games. The love-making scenes, which have been a staple of the main trailer of the film, all happen in the first half. Very aesthetically (and in a few cases, very wittily) shot, with no trace of vulgarity, they remind us of what the Bhatts can learn from Bahl.

 

It is the second half where Bahl lets loose his own creativity. He throws in a surprise appearance by an acclaimed actress (whose name I won’t reveal here), which does not exist in Sikka’s story, but which somehow manages to throw open a mirror to Mukesh and show him what a mess his life has become. He also puts in another shocking episode, which actually makes your stomach churn. Bahl combines all these elements with the remaining narrative of Sikka’s story, in order to produce a climax that you think you are ready for, but just aren’t.

 

Since Bahl handled the camera on this film himself, he should be credited for making Paharganj escape the pages of literature and take a life of its own on 35mm. Through his eyes, Paharganj becomes more than just a cesspool of corruption—it also becomes a playground for the personal anxieties faced by all the characters in the film. The dingily-lit hotels, the bright neon-lights—Bahl’s understated cinematography is the prime reason why his depiction of Paharganj trounces that of Anurag Kashyap’s Dev D by a mile.

 

As far as the performances go, everyone is top-notch here. Rajesh Sharma, that wonderful actor from Kolkata who is hitting the ball out of the park nowadays with one powerful performance after another, shines in his brief role as Sarika’s abusive husband Ashok Khanna. Shadab Kamal is brilliant as the naive, stuck-in-a-mess Mukesh, who manages to convey his vulnerability wonderfully through his eyes.

 

But to me, the real stars of the film are Shilpa Shukla and Dibyendu Bhattacharya. Shilpa’s Sarika act is so powerful, it blows away Shadab’s screen presence to some extent. Her portrayal of Sarika is such that you find her bewitching and menacing in equal measure—something that only Vidya Balan managed to pull off with aplomb in Ishqiya. Dibyendu, on the other hand, is wonderfully restrained as the ever-smiling Johnny, whose dream of going to Mauritius conceals a deeper anxiety.

 

I would suggest that you take a chance and go and watch BA Pass. It’s not a happy-go-lucky film, but its 90-odd minutes of breathless devilishness will make you sit up. And shudder.