Bulletpoints: Madras Cafe



  • When I watched this film a couple of weeks ago, PVR Priya in Basant Lok was showing two films: Madras Cafe (obviously) and Chennai Express. Neither film is set in Chennai/Madras, though Madras Cafe does have a few scenes there.
  • Other people have written in much greater detail about the film’s glossing over huge swathes of the real political events it depicts-but-doesn’t-really (since changing everyone’s names/refusing to name certain characters is the best disclaimer). And I’m not confident enough of my own historical knowledge (and have too many Sri Lankan relatives) to add to this. For most of this post I’m going to pretend the whole story is fictional, but there are real-world consequences I can’t ignore.
  • Intent is not the best angle upon which to hinge one’s own critical position, but in some places I found myself wildly curious to know what the creators of this film were trying to do.
  • Was it, for example, their intention to create an Indian intelligence service that was quite this … unintelligent? The gormless but well meaning Vikram Singh (John Abraham) who only seems to know anything at all about the fraught political situation in Sri Lanka because he did his “homework”–his wife, who actually watches the news, at least seems to be aware that there’s a war going on. Perhaps she’d be better at his job than he is. The gormless but well meaning Siddharth Basu, who really ought to have stuck with Mastermind India–what are things coming to when T.V quizmasters are politicians? (*insert joke about Derek O’Brien*) The gormless but well meaning group of Indian government types who sit around a table and discuss the intervention of the country into the Sri Lankan situation, but apparently do not recognise the key figures in the war? All the way up to the gormless but well meaning ex-prime minister who seems to be useless at regarding warnings.
  • In the context of India’s 2014 elections I do wonder how this works. Well-meaning incompetence is pretty much the UPA’s electoral platform.
  • As a result of all this, Nargis Fakhri’s British-journalist-with-American-accent comes across as the most competent and well-informed person present. This isn’t saying much.
  • All of Fakhri and Abraham’s interactions go as follows. Abraham: please share your sources. Fakhri: I’m not sharing my sources, that would be bad journalism. Okay, here are my sources.
  • I’m also fascinated by the characters in the film and their apparent deification of not!Rajiv Gandhi. Gandhi was assassinated in 1991–at the time I was very young and in another country. So I don’t remember mass mourning, and I don’t remember my parents being hugely affected by it (perhaps they were and I was too young to understand, but I remember what they were like when the Berlin wall came down).
  • Madras Cafe has its characters genuinely adore not!Gandhi. When his wife dies, Vikram Singh mourns appropriately and goes back to work. When his ex-PM dies, Vikram Singh quits his job, stops shaving, and begins to haunt a church in Kasauli. Siddharth Basu’s character’s wife is brought into the film for about a minute only to express shock at not!Gandhi’s death and ask what wrong poor, innocent not!Gandhi did that he deserved to die? It’s the same question that Vikram Singh asks upon the death of his wife.
  • Which makes me wonder if we’re supposed to see all of these characters, and by implication the nation itself, as widowed by not!Gandhi’s death.
  • What’s more embarrassing, Judi Dench reciting Tennyson in Skyfall, or John Abraham reciting Tagore’s “Where the mind is without fear” in Madras Cafe? Ans: Do not put people reciting poetry in movies. Especially do not do this if the only relevant poetry you know is something you were forced to recite in school. I was cringing.
  • Sinister white people are behind everything.
  • It is very prettily shot.

2 Comments to “Bulletpoints: Madras Cafe

  1. Hi Aishwarya,

    Some good points that you bring up. I’m wondering if they went to the deification of the Prime minister (Not-RG) as they might have wanted to avoid all the hassles if they showed an indifferent RAW agent. They even had to keep repeating that this is a fictional account and even they they got into trouble. While there wasn’t mass-mourning upto the levels when Indira Gandhi was assassinated. The Congress folk were distraught over this event, but I’m not sure as to how much deep their grief went. On the plus side there was no anti-Tamil pogrom like the Sikh one in the eighties.

    I’m wondering if Indian cinema can make films about actual persona or events without anybody getting offended or threatening to disrupt the release.


    PS: The film is indeed beautifully shot.

  2. great post !!

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