Shashi Baliga

Madras Café’s refreshing cuppa

Shashi Baliga | Updated on August 29, 2013

Shoojit Sircar, Director of Madras Cafe

Actor Nargis Fakhri

Actor John Abraham

Director Shoojit Sircar gives us our first documentary-style political thriller, and John Abraham ably silences critics.

This season, you’re either a Chennai Express fan or a Madras Café one. Count me firmly in the second category.

What a revelation and revolutionary the low-key Shoojit Sircar has turned out to be. His first film, Yahaan, was a little gem in which the acting, cinematography, dialogue and, of course, the direction were strong and yet delicate, underplayed yet powerful. It remains one of the best Hindi films on the turmoil in Kashmir but has never got its due.

Then came Vicky Donor and we marvelled at Sircar’s about-turn into the kind of comedy we’d been waiting so long for Hindi cinema to give us. What a delight it was and how grateful we were.

Now, he’s taken us by surprise once again by returning to the political arena with Madras Café, giving us our first documentary-style political thriller. His choice of subject is a break from the predictable too: while most of Bollywood is obsessed with dons and the Mumbai underworld, he’s picked the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi and the civil war in Sri Lanka.

Madras Café is the classic thriller; it’s taut, spare, don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-something stuff. Despite the fact that we know the ending, the movie has us paying attention to every frame because the screenplay, editing and direction build up the pace and ramp up the dramatic tension so skilfully. So often do promising movies fail to deliver in the last stretch or climax, leaving us fuming at what could have been. Fizzling out post-intermission is frustratingly common in Hindi movies. But Madras Café gets it so right.

One more thumbs up to Sircar for great casting, using such a diverse lot of non-professional actors and getting them to deliver so smoothly. I counted TV host and producer Siddhartha Basu, admen Piyush Pandey and Agnello Dias and journalist Dibang; perhaps there were more in smaller roles. The professional actors did even better. Rashi Khanna as John Abraham’s wife was endearing and filmmaker Prakash Belawadi sizzled as a scheming RAW heavyweight.

The film does have its problems. Mainly, some glaring inconsistencies (the biggest being John Abraham returning as a journalist and hoping not to be recognised) and too many flashbacks. The switching between Hindi, Tamil and English doesn’t always work. Nargis Fakhri’s overblown lips are an unwelcome distraction, but rare is the Hindi actress who doesn’t use lip plumpers these days, so we’ll overlook that. I personally did not feel the first half was an information overload, but most viewers and critics seem to think so. However, I’m willing to overlook all these negatives for the sheer joy of watching a Hindi film that does without all the formulaic props and clears out a new path.

More power to Shoojit Sircar and his producer-cum-leading man John Abraham, who has silenced his (many) critics unequivocally. I have to admit I was one of those who thought John had little else to offer beyond his brawn. I’m happy to be proved wrong. Not only does he turn in a powerfully quiet performance in Madras Café, no praise is enough for the manner in which this MBA has put his money on films that may not make Rs 100 crore but have been landmarks of sorts in contemporary Hindi cinema (he produced Vicky Donor as well).

John is a self-made man who’s had to take the tough route and work his way up in Bollywood. To consciously avoid the easy masala and item-number way out as producer is truly admirable. Surely he puts to shame many of our luxuriously-heeled producers and actor-producers who could well afford to take a chance but don’t. What a searing contrast to Shah Rukh Khan as actor and co-producer of Chennai Express and to Salman Khan, who has squandered his talent in so many tacky films in the last few years (with the sole exception of Dabangg). Only Aamir Khan and, to a lesser degree, Saif Ali Khan seem to have found a workable balance between mass entertainment and movies that do not insult Hindi cinema or your intelligence. (Ranbir Kapoor has, too, but then he hasn’t turned producer yet.)

So it bears repetition: John Abraham is a relatively small, fledgling producer who’s shown more courage than the biggies. Indeed, it’s small and smart that has driven most of the change in Bollywood in recent decades. There are biggie exceptions like Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra and studio owners like Aditya Chopra of Yashraj Films, Ekta Kapoor and even Karan Johar (remember Kurbaan?) who have put their money on films that may not prove to be immortal but are at least trying to break out of the stranglehold of formulaic cinema. However, there are many more moneybags who could afford to, but don’t.

Ten years ago, Hindi film viewers were hardly in a position to choose with one dreary, flogged-to-death formula popping up week after week. Now we’re beginning to taste power — to reject the same ol’ tired stories, and back more adventurous or sensible cinema because we’re finally being offered real choices. Yes, the industry needs those Rs 100 crore entertainers, but could we have a little more grit thrown into the candyfloss, please?

shashi.baliga@gmail.com

Published on August 29, 2013

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