When mainstream Indian film-makers zoom their cameras on any political turmoil scouring the subcontinent’s landscape they come up with two visions. One is a jingoistic, cine-patriotic and muscled-up picture of Indian State’s ‘peace keeping efforts’ and the second is of seemingly serious but scratchy, misleading and morally inconclusive films. Madras Cafe belongs to the latter.
Apparently Kashmir is the most favoured subject with either the two categories of directors. But with Madras Cafe the focus shifts to Sri Lankan Civil War, and in its guise a conspiracy ridden tale of the assassination of India’s ex prime-minster.
Strange as it may seem but however curious, Kashmir is the best lens to look at this film. Not because Kashmir conflict has any obvious link with Sri Lanka but because of the history of representation and documentation of Kashmir conflict by Indian cinema. With Madras Café, nothing seems to have changed, expect places.
In Yahaan (2005) Shoojit Sircar subjected Kashmir to a pandering account of an Indian military man falling for a Kashmiri girl and in its wake simplified Kashmir to a ridiculous level; unbecoming of a serious filmmaker. Yahaan had managed to depict Kashmiri militants as mis-guided and indoctrinated youth (as bad guys) up against the ever-so-moral and upright Indian army. We see pretty much the same categorization in Madras Cafe. Right from the beginning the narrator, Covert ops Officer Vikram Singh (John Abraham) wants us to believe that India’s mission in Sri Lanka was nobler compared to LTTE’s (referred as LTF in the film), this it does with patronizing narration and crude scenes of its violence.
The film reminded me of Rahul Dholakia’s Lamhaa (2010) which had an Indian intelligence officer going virtually unchallenged in a conflict zone with no one, not even the story, questioning his presence. What’s interesting is that be it Sircar or anyone else, Indian State’s role in any conflict is out of bounds for filmmakers to question. India is there by default.
The job of a journalist in a conflict zone is always challenging and under strain. But in Madras Cafe, Jiya’s (Nargis Fakhri) only strain is to avoid being seen publicly with an Indian agent. Privately they can be seen trading information, mostly from Jiya to Vikram, and no one seems to ask who is a critic and who is a beneficiary of Indian policy in Sri Lanka. Earlier we see Jiya’s character established as critical of India’s policy but nowhere in the movie do we see any glimpse of that. She goes from one step to another in helping Vikram Singh botch up his so-called covert operations whose one culmination is the death of his wife.
Its a revealing picture of how journalism finds itself in a compromising position whenever the question of ‘national-interest’ arises, no matter how irrevocably wrong and unethical the national policy may be.Kashmir provides a perfect example of this tendency of the media to side with the State and serve its interests while wearing the garb of objectivity.
Madras Cafe never ventures out of its self-inflicted moral righteousness. Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination is presented as an act of vulgar inhumanity, but how it came to be is hardly sought out other than as explicated through a vague conspiracy theory. It wants to escape from the fact that Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) was not at all righteous. Known as Innocent People Killing Force in many parts of Sri Lanka, IPKF’s crimes are well documented. However Sircar allows this history to slip under the carpet as if to be factual was beyond his objective radar. With truncated and unquestioned history as ideals, Madras Cafe is one of the most stunning failures of our times.
While VK Singh’s revelation about paying up politicians in Kashmir to keep the region under army’s control is nevertheless shocking but watching Madras Cafe reveals that this truth is not as shocking as made out to be. For a military apparatus to exercise its will in an unwilling land, this route of proxy is the most obvious one. Robin Dutt (RAW chief in the film) is adamant on winning loyalties in Jaffna so that an interim election can be held, as envisaged by his bosses in the ministry. To this effect, Vikram Singh is tasked to broker deals with the opposition and win them over. The tactics also include breaking up of LTF into two sub groups by allaying with group’s right hand man. It is another matter that both plans fail but what it shows is that military establishment can go to any length to strengthen its sway over people. See Kashmir!
Falling back on the history of Indian cinematic representations of conflicts, Madras Cafe will go down as yet another swerving, dodging and inconsequential film. In its wake it’s vital to remember films such as Roja, Mission Kashmir, Yahaan which employed a pornotropic vision on Kashmir and its people. It seems that elsewhere as well Indian cinema can’t shrug off its self styled role of representator of Indian polity. Madras Cafe adds to this role by not delving deeper into the political question of India’s involvement in Sri Lanka, which as we know became the essential reason for LTTE to assassinate Rajiv Gandhi.