Everything’s complicated in this cafe, and unnecessarily so. RAW agents busily zip around cities, even countries as you try keeping pace. And yet, despite its super-fast pace, you are not at the edge of your seat.
The film takes you back to the ‘90s civil war in Sri Lanka, where Anna leads a Tamilian rebel group called LTF. Due to incessant bloodshed, India intervenes, and sends a peace force to weaken LTF and ensure peaceful elections. The film that begins with the killing of the Sri Lankan president leads up to the years when a former Indian prime minister (based on Rajiv Gandhi) leading the peace force initiative is assassinated.
So the film starts from a ‘2 years, Six months Before the Assassination’ going up to that very event. Major Vikram (John Abraham, dazed) is sent to the ethnic war with some heavy-duty instructions.
Meanwhile, we are shown stark black-and white photographs of heaps of bodies, and at times, close-ups of the victims of the war. Then there are the other manipulative cliches like the news of a soldier dying, given to his very pregnant wife.
Vikram is kidnapped by the LTF, whose guerrilla tactics gives them an edge over every army. This is a fact told to us by the RAW Chief who sends in the army to rescue their “best boy”. And despite how impossible it is to reach the LTF, Vikram is rescued within no time. Not only that, just days later, and without any disguise, he goes to meet the LTF again, this time posing as a journalist. Sheesh!
Eventually, he unearths a bigger conspiracy involving a foreign hand, and now has to ensure the plan doesn’t go through. He is helped by Brit journalist Jaya (Nargis Fakhri, a revelation) as they exchange clues and documents and other such. Also he always talks to her in Hindi, and she inevitably answers in English. Why? Don’t ask.
By the way, all this is told in flashback to a befuddled character who has this to say after the story is almost over, “maybe all this was a coincidence?”
The second-half leading to the conspiracy is far more involving than the indulgent first half. The preparation to assassinate, the cold-blooded killers, and their meticulous planning sends a chill down the spine.
John Abraham (also the film’s co-producer) as Major Vikram gives a pretty basic rendering of this fraught character. Since this is the only character on which the film rests, it was begging for a more layered, nuanced performance.
Nargis Fakhri gives a spirited, enthusiastic performance as the journo. The scene-stealers in this movie are the character actors – Prakash Belawadi as Vikram’s immediate superior Bala, Siddhartha Basu as the RAW Chief, and Rashi Khanna as Vikram’s wife, among many others.
Dialogue by Juhi Chaturvedi is surprisingly below par (she wrote crackling dialogue for Vicky Donor). Apart from being simplistic, the dialogue insinuates English words in Hindi sentences in the most non-conversational manner. And all the characters in the film speak this way.
Unintentional comedy happens when Vikram, having lost a loved one, meets the RAW Chief. The Chief chirps around happily, airily mentioning, “Sorry about your loss. Tough times. You need to move on.” He might as well have shrugged off the whole thing. And it’s just as well because Vikram rues about “losing his prime minister”, but not at all about losing his loved one.
About the only thing consistently remarkable is Kamaljeet Negi’s cinematography. Shoojit Sircar wowed us with Vicky Donor last year, and he shifts gears to the political thriller with Madras Cafe. (He has dabbled in this genre with Yahaan in 2005.)
One appreciates the film’s intentions - a controversial political event presented with a no melodrama-no superfluous item-song stance. The film seems to have got its research right, but the treatment is flawed with a heavy, self-serious tone.
While one would like to like this movie, it’s an uphill task, with convoluted story-telling, out-of-sorts dialogue, no new perspective on an event that happened years ago, and placid acting. This one’s an average thriller, elevated by the fact that it reflects back on a crucial and unfortunate political incident.
Rating: Two and a half stars