Bollywood review: John Abraham pulls an 'Argo' with 'Madras Café'

This could be a first for any Bollywood director. To successfully abandon over-the-top Bollywood clichés and staple musical sojourns to create an action drama that’s incredibly taut, gritty, thought-provoking, engaging and realistic.

And achieving it all, without ever tiring the audience.

What’s more he pitches a story inspired by history about an intelligence agent, who unlike his Bollywood peers never (ever) indulges in song-and-dance routines or implausible dare-devil stunts. If we had to draw a reference, it’d only be his trademark aviators.

And, to do it with two actors, one a pretty damsel and the other a seasoned Bollywood hulk, who are (often) guilty of “wooden performances”, is an act that truly deserves applause.

Director Shoojit Sircar is the man of the moment.

Although writers Somnath Dey and Shubendu Bhattacharya pen a rather indulgent narrative at 2-hours-and-45-minutes, it is paced without inducing any fatigue or distraction. In fact, it educates and informs about a conflict that’s gone unnoticed in Bollywood frames.

It unhurriedly achieves what it sets out to – revisit a bloody civil war that had engulfed an island nation for over 26 years and how it affected an assassination that botched the Indian history.

Cinematographer Kamaljeet Negi skilfully textures the war-torn struggles, without exaggeration, and his efforts are aptly complimented by Manohar Verma’s action sequences.

Vikram is a macho military officer who is ordered to carry out covert operations in the divided Sri Lanka. He’s instructed by top Indian government officials to put into play their Prime Minister’s vision of peace.

The negotiations suddenly turn cold when a mole in their system double-crosses, impacting the mission irrevocably.

The repercussions are unforgiving, and lead to a spate of bloodbaths that eventually lead to the death of the Indian leader.

 ‘Madras Café’ remains nonjudgmental but claims that if timely action were taken then the killing could’ve been averted.

John Abraham abandons his stiff, starry persona and lends an incredible maturity to Vikram. He never overshadows the story with his heroism as is traditional in Bollywood, and allows Vikram to remain mere flesh and blood.

His interactions with his wife, played effectively by debutant Rashi Khanna, are poetic without being overdramatic. And, to think that people can romance without a soundtrack playing in the backdrop lends credibility to the script.

Nargis Fakhri also steps up, and abandons her pout to give war correspondent Jaya an assertive portrayal. Clearly, she is far more convincing when not running around trees.

Quiz-whiz Siddartha Basu also displays immense authority as government officer RD.

Although the narrative borrows heavily from the history books it never quite accepts it.

LTTE’s guerrilla warfare, use of cyanide tablets, and their radical leader Prabhakaran (renamed Anna) are retained albeit under a different name. The revolutionary LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) is renamed Liberation of Tamil Front (LTF).

Even the rebel group’s distinct way of allowing international journalists into their turf is intricately redesigned.

If there’s any oversight, it’s in the casting, wherein the Tamil rebels could’ve benefited by more reliable faces. There’s Prakash Belawadi who nails officer Bala’s power play with deftness. But, the others aren’t carved out as realistically.

Even the dialogues by Juhi Chaturvedi remain partial to Hindi and seldom allow the rebels to speak in their language. Using subtitles could’ve averted this jarring mistake, especially since this ethnic fight was about their identity.

‘Madras Café’ rewards us with a story that refuses to bow-down to Bollywood stereotypes and traditional narrative, and remains true to what it promises to capture.

Truly a first for Bollywood, and hopefully, not the last.

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