Madras Cafe (2013): Indian filmmaker Shoojit Sircar's intelligent political thriller starring John Abraham

A unique conspiracy theory angle to the Rajiv Gandhi assassination

Featured in IMDb Critic Reviews

Madras Cafe (2013) By Shoojit Sircar
Our Rating: 7.0
IMDb Ratings: 8.4
GenreAction Drama | History
CastJohn Abraham, Nargis Fakhri, Rashi Khanna
Country: India
Language: Hindi
Runtime: 130 min
Color: Color

Summary: Set in the late '80s and early '90s, the movie deals with the subject of terrorism during the time of Indian intervention in the Sri Lankan civil war and assassination of former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi.

Madras Cafe is a 2013 political thriller film directed by Indian filmmaker Shoojit Sircar. Co-written by Somnath Dey and Shubendu Bhattacharya, Madras Cafe stars John Abraham in the role of an undercover Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) agent and Nargis Fakhri as an international war correspondent based out of Sri Lanka. The movie also stars theatre person Prakash Belawadi, quizmaster Siddharth Basu and journalist Dibang in pivotal roles. Madras Cafe presents a whole new perspective on the tragic Rajiv Gandhi assassination, believed to have been carried under the orders of the late Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) chief Velupillai Prabhakaran, underpinning a whole new conspiracy angle to it. But, the movie, in a deliberate attempt to avoid any major controversy, eschews from using the real names of people, groups or organizations: like it refers to the LTTE as LTF, Prabhakaran as Anna Bhaskaran, late Rajiv Gandhi as the ex-PM, etc.

John Abraham in Shoojit Sircar's Madras Cafe, undercover RAW agent, escapes in a boat
John Abraham in Shoojit Sircar's Madras Cafe
So, what exactly is a conspiracy theory? Generally, whenever a famous personality is assassinated (or, for that matter, in the occurrence of any other event or happening of national or international importance that may trigger a controversy) the grapevine gets flooded with loads of conspiracy theories. While every such theory is backed up by some sort of evidence there is nothing concrete enough to substantiate it. Besides, if we were to go by the proponents of conspiracy theories, there are always some powerful lobbies in action exercising their influence to keep such truths buried forever. According to the Wikipedia definition: “A conspiracy theory is an explanatory proposition that accuses two or more people, a group, or an organization of having caused or covered up, through deliberate collusion, an event or phenomenon of great social, political, or economic impact.” 

Nargis Fakhri in Shoojit Sircar's Madras Cafe, foreign correspondent to Sri Lanka
Nargis Fakhri in Shoojit Sircar's Madras Cafe
While the genre is quite infantile when it comes to the Hindi cinema, it’s quite a successful formula in Hollywood. The fact that Madras Cafe is the first of its kind makes its success considerably important from the cinematic point of view. After all, how the film fares on the box office will decide whether we will have more of its kind or not! So, what’s the verdict? We will try to find the answer to this question and more during the course of this critique. Choosing to make a film on the sensitive and divisive subject of the LTTE takes a lot of courage in itself, let aside realizing a film that revolves around the tragic Rajiv Gandhi assassination and throws in a brand new conspiracy theory angle to it. And the fact that films based on real-life sensitive issues and historical events in a country like India can stir up political tension and create furor makes their effort even more commendable. Thus, regardless of the movie’s monetary success, Sircar and team need to be congratulated for their valorous attempt at making something so challenging and unique, especially from the point of view of Hindi cinema. 

John Abraham and Nargis Fakhri in Madras Cafe, Directed by Shoojit Sircar
A Still from Shoojit Sircar's Madras Cafe
From the cinematic point of view, Madras Cafe is not flawless by any stretch of imagination. The movie’s narrative is taut and fast-paced but has many loopholes which a keen-eyed viewer cannot easily overlook. But, given the movie’s realistic subject and the subject’s creative treatment, it would be too harsh not to give it the benefit of doubt that it rightfully deserves. Besides, unlike many contemporary India films, it seems to be very well researched. It would be safe to say that Madras Cafe glides seamlessly through the avenues hitherto alien to Indian cinema (though Sriram Raghavan's Agent Vinod tried doing something similar, it tasted very little success). The realistic manner in which it captures the naked brutality of war, while simultaneously underlining its futility, has seldom been seen in Hindi films before. First with Vicky Donor and now with Madras Cafe, Shoojit Sircar seems to have carved a niche for himself especially when it comes to dealing with such non-conventional subjects. And, I daresay, Sircar’s incredible range and tremendous poise as a filmmaker is bound to make the best of his contemporaries feel both envious and threatened. 

Rajiv Gandhi lookalike waves to the crowd during a rally in Madras (now Chennai), Madras Cafe, Directed by Shoojit Sircar
Madras Cafe: Rajiv Gandhi lookalike waves to the crowd
Overall, Madras Cafe proves to be a great viewing experience for the serious audience. The film touches upon themes that are often considered quite challenging and difficult to tackle especially in the content of Indian cinema. The movie is at par with any Hollywood product on the technical front: be it cinematography, editing, or music. The acting ranges from average to good. Nargis Fakhri appears to be quite comfortable playing a role that requires her to speak in a language that she’s familiar with unlike her previous role in Imtiaz Ali’s Rockstar, wherein her voice had to be dubbed. But, the real revelation is John Abraham who undoubtedly delivers his best performance ever. Though he may not be as toned down as he himself claims to be, he seems to fit into the shoes of the character quite well and even manages to bring in a much needed element of realism and machismo to his part. Another performance which deserves a special mention is that of the thespian Prakash Belawadi who is an absolute treat to watch in his relatively short but important role. While the movie doesn’t appear to be taking any sides, its detractors may criticize it for implicitly creating a wave of sympathy for one political group in particular, especially with the general elections fast approaching. Madras Express... oops, Cafe, at best, is a thinking man’s espionage-cum-political thriller and is most likely to disappoint those on the lookout for voyeurism and cheap entertainment. But, it’s a movie that every serious filmgoer must watch.

Readers, please feel free to share your opinion by leaving your comments. As always your feedback is highly appreciated!  

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  1. Good review, though I have a completely contrarian view on the film which you are probably aware of already.
    I did notice one thing - towards the end, you ended up calling the film 'Madras Express'. I wasn't sure if that was a typo or a deliberate tongue-in-cheek reference to that other film which refers to the same city in its title and is smashing box office records these days!

  2. sounds like an interesting movie!

  3. Good Movie it was..and Nice Review..

  4. Glad you liked the review... though I am equally sorry that you didn't like the movie very much!!! Yes, I was aiming for a tongue-in-cheek but I think it wasn't obvious enough... and so I have done a minor alteration to it in order to make it more obvious :-) Thanks for mentioning it, though!!!

  5. It indeed it, if you appreciate good cinema!!!

  6. I am really glad you liked the movie as well as the review... thanks for sharing your thoughts!!! :-)

  7. Got to watch the film only recently, though had seen this review of yours earlier. Yes, it (the film) is flawed in many ways, but what is promising is the emergence of a box office model that allows serious cinema to thrive. I quite enjoyed the film, and like you, am excited by Shoojit's approach to things.


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