'Madras Cafe' poster. — Photo by Reuters
MUMBAI: Filmmaker Shoojit Sircar wowed Bollywood moviegoers in 2012 with a light-hearted take on infertility and sperm donation. This year, he hopes to repeat the success of "Vicky Donor" with an espionage thriller set in Sri Lanka.
"Madras Cafe" stars John Abraham and Nargis Fakhri in a film that has attracted some controversy over its alleged portrayal of Tamil Tiger separatists during the civil war in Sri Lanka.
Sircar spoke to Reuters about the perils of making a film on a sensitive subject.
Q: You have said you wanted to make this film for a long time. Did the story change over the years?
"No, it didn't change much. The time period of the film is early 1990s and late 80s. But it took a lot of time to create a script because I knew the sensitivity of the issue and I knew I need to be particular about the kind of subject I was dealing with, which was war and dealt with human lives. That took me a lot of time - almost six, seven years."
Q: You recreated Jaffna and large parts of inner Sri Lanka in India. How tough was that?
"It was challenging, definitely. The issue was recreating the war, not so much the place and transport the audience into that milieu and that environment. They had to feel the danger, the vulnerability and what the people were feeling. That was the crucial part. We knew we couldn't shoot this in Sri Lanka, so we shot most of it in Tamil Nadu and Kerala and converted it into a war zone. The second part of the film is based in India, which is the politics part."
Q: When you are making a film on a sensitive topic, what are the precautions you have to take?
"Absolutely. I am a conscious citizen of this country and a conscious filmmaker and I made a film about Kashmir, and what the Kashmiri youth feels (Yahaan) and here also, this is an issue of another country's homeland. I have to be very unbiased in terms of what I say. It is a very thin line. I am absolutely on the edge. I cannot be on the right or the left. That's why this film took so long. I should not be under any commercial pressure to do anything which is not conscious. You have to be very very careful of not hurting anybody. I tell everybody who is trying to speculate - don't speculate unless you watch the film."
Q: What are the commercial pressures you speak of?
"Sometimes, with a film like this you have to spoon-feed the audience at some point. I try to talk to my producers that we don't have to spoon-feed the audience all the time. We have to leave it to their intelligence also. I want to audience to stir themselves up. And the second pressure is to do the film at a certain cost because there are economics involved. Mounting this film in a cost, which I will not mention to you, was another task."
Q: Did you anticipate the controversy around the film?
"It will be wrong on my part to say I didn't anticipate it. Yes, I knew that it is a subject. I tell people don't speculate or don't take political advantage just because it is a film on Sri Lanka and the Tamil people. Some of my best friends are from Tamil Nadu, so I know the issues."
Q: I read that you didn't want to make another India-Pakistan story and that is why you chose to set your film during the Sri Lankan conflict. Is that true?
"I think we have got bored of seeing that one thing all the time. This terrain, this conflict, the people - we have never seen. This is also real and these are our neighbours and a huge thing happened and has been happening for the last 27 years. It has affected us also as a neighbouring country."
Q: Your last film was the light-hearted "Vicky Donor." Was it difficult to transition from that to making an intense, serious film like this one?
"First of all, ‘Vicky Donor' was not a comedy film for us. It was a very serious subject and none of my characters were buffoons. Yes, people laughed at it and thought it was light, but for me it was serious business. Because we were dealing with infertility and everything was unconventional in that film. One, it dealt with semen donors, infertility, the boy falling in love with a divorcee, adoption, etc. I thought people will not accept, but it surprised me as to how much the audience has evolved. Yes, it is difficult to shift genres … People told me I look and talk very seriously and they couldn't imagine that I could do a film like ‘Vicky Donor'."