Stressing with the disclaimer that Madras Café is a work of fiction, Shoojit Sircar’s human-drama of politics, rebellion, genocide and spy-games adapts Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination plot, and the Sri Lankan civil war with sweaty palms and a gawky breakneck pace. And yet, for all its clumsy footing, at times, half-intelligent writing, it is engaging.

"Madras Cafe" movie poster. — Courtesy Photo
"Madras Cafe" movie poster. — Courtesy Photo

It opens with John Abraham as Vikram Singh, in a scruffy beard, waking wide-open in an unkempt bed. Like most war veterans he is plagued by nightmares. His next step, though, is baffling, as he sits at a Church and narrates the film to the padre – and of course, us.

The year is 1990 and Vikram is a Major with the Indian armed forces, with a proficiency in covert ops for the Research and Analysis Wing (that’s RAW for the uninitiated). Vikram’s task is to sneak into Jaffna and break the rebel militancy that’s has substantially increased its foothold in the region.

On face value, Vikram’s mission is simple (though, I doubt any war mission actually is simple): infiltrate, sniff out sources – which include trifling assistance from a war correspondent (Nargis Fakhri) – and face an obligatory double-cross; though, that one we see coming way before Vikram does.

"Madras Cafe" movie poster. — Courtesy Photo
"Madras Cafe" movie poster. — Courtesy Photo

And that’s one of the snags in Madras Café. It is predictable – and perhaps more scared than it lets us believe.

Events, names are tinkered to stay free from unwarranted uproar (which didn’t work ), and which doesn’t feel right, especially because Vikram and co. are in the middle of an actual slice of history.

Mr. Abraham, also the main producer of Madras Café, is fine as he prods though with gruff looks and minimalist acting skills, moving from scenario to scenario without any emotional heft. We learn early that Vikram’s wife (Rashi Khanna) doesn’t know about his covert operations and that the film’s other leading lady, Ms. Fakhri, is there because, well, she looks good in front of the rest of the war-torn backdrops.

Madras-Cafe-(3)800
Madras-Cafe-(3)800

As long as we’re talking characters, there are two in Madras Café that warrant a mention: Prakash Belawadi and Siddharth Basu. The former, almost sinking the ship with his rough theatrics, is Vikram’s on-the-field superior. The latter, a natural and a god send, is the intelligence department’s head who appears to either argue with hard-headed state officials or push Vikram deeper into the mission.

Other than these two, the rest of the characters, inspired by real-life people – including an unnamed ex-Prime Minister, posing as Rajiv Gandhi – are McGuffins, whose only real relevance is to move the story towards its climax.

Slickly photographed and precisely cut (with very natural production design to boot), Mr. Sircar grounds the motion picture in realistic warfare scenarios with undue, breathless energy. The on-the-clock screenplay zips, zigs and zags through Sri Lanka, India and an international port or two, almost as if its tail is on fire (considering that it’s the early 90’s, watch for a few of the latest automotives when Mr. Abraham goes to Bangkok).

The rapidity keeps the interest alive, I’ll give it that. But that’s just about it.

"Madras Cafe" movie poster. — Courtesy Photo
"Madras Cafe" movie poster. — Courtesy Photo

For all its speed and embedded seriousness about global conflict, the nature of war, consequences and international trade, Madras Café lack of braves turns it into mellow spy-thriller. And trust me, the words “mellow” and “spy-thriller” do not gel.

“Madras Café” is released by Viacom 18 Motion Pictures.

The film stars: John Abraham, Nargis Fakhri, Rashi Khanna, Siddharth Basu.

Directed by Shoojit Sircar; Produced by John Abraham; Viacom 18 Motion Pictures; Rising Sun Films; Ronnie Lahiri; Written by Somnath Dey, Shubendu Bhattacharya, with dialogues by Juhi Chaturvedi. Cinematography by Kamaljeet Negi; Editing by Chandrashekhar Prajapati; Production Design by Vinod Kumar and Music by Shantanu Moitra.

The film is rated U/A, for grim reality, war-torn country-sides and those few bruises appear that appear on Mr. Abraham.


Mohammad Kamran Jawaid has been professionally critiquing movies for a while now – say more or less ten years, exclusively for Dawn. About 400 reviews and features later (he stopped counting a long time ago), not being as young as he was before, he still feels the urge to write for another couple of centuries.

Despite living movies 24/7 (his company (http://kamranjawaid.com) helps filmmakers make movies), he is still truly, madly, deeply in love with cinema; the root cause of this anomaly requires further clinical trials. His twitter (http://twitter.com/kamranjawaid) reveals very little about him, other than him being the Senior Film Critic for Dawn.com.

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

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Comments are closed.

Comments (10)

Sridhar
August 30, 2013 6:01 pm

We know how much these movie reviews by the so called "experts" are worth. Most reviews predicted that Chennai Express is no good and it has turned out to be the biggest money spinner at the box office. Mr Abraham has thanked the audience for good reception of the movie. It is already making a profit. It is a small budget movie, not in the same league as Chennai express.

Adhita
August 31, 2013 3:01 am

Really like the style of the review especially how it tells about both the pros and cons. Indian presses have indeed been praising this movie but without proper reason in place. I have yet to read more international views to see how everyone other than India is reacting. Personally speaking I do not know if John can ever learn to act but I encourage the type of movies he produces. With that said, the last comment mentioned Chennai Express which has nothing to do with Madras Cafe as both are different and cater to different mindsets.

hafsha
August 31, 2013 5:56 am

Still John can't act. The movie is good but character building is missing

Anoop
August 31, 2013 9:32 am

@Sridhar:

Chennai Express would have flopped had someone other than SRK or Salman Khan would have made it.

But, Madras Cafe has achieved success based on merit, not the stardom of a man, whom everyone will forget after 20 years.

Indian Cinema needs to satisfy all type of consumers and this makes movies like Chennai Express important.

As long as viewers like me get to watch movies like Bhag Milkha Bhag, Madras Cafe, Shanghai, etc., we are happy. The people who like the type of movies of Chennai Express will always get them as long as people like Rohit Shetty or Farah Khan or Karan Johar are around.

Everybody wins and thats the whole idea.

KULDEEP SHARMA
August 31, 2013 9:34 am

One of the best bollywood movie of present era.

jabbal
August 31, 2013 9:00 pm

@hafsha: ok can tell me how build a character

Ravi
August 31, 2013 9:28 pm

Spot on review. M Cafe doesn't always gel but is still engaging. And when I left the theater it was a confused reaction. I like it, but still had nagging feeling that M Cafe lacked much for it to be memorable.

Farida
August 31, 2013 10:22 pm

A must watch!

nityanandkeni
September 1, 2013 2:34 pm

basically Madras cafe looks like made for intelluctuals ,But it is likely to impress all sorts of audience.plot is good,crafty and makes to think. Hope it will be a grand sucess , so that john can make many more movies like this. In fact i will be happy if he makes ' Veerappan '

BISWAJIT ROY
September 1, 2013 7:39 pm

The review is superb but he mentioned more expected from the movie but remember this is small budget movie and the scripts achieve more than its financials constraint.

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