Madras Cafe: A timely interrogation

“There are events, facts from history” and according to the director Shoojit Sircar his film Madras Cafe (2013) is “fiction inspired from fact”.[1] And while the director claims that his film is not biased in any way and is “adapted from history”, the film remains a far cry from the actual facts that it is based on. And as one film review aptly described, the film’s tagline “Intercept the truth” should have rather read “Intercept the half-truth”.[2]

The film is set in the years of Indian intervention in Sri Lanka, during the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, and looks at the role of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) and the battle for power in the North and East of Sri Lanka between the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) and the Indian forces, culminating in the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. John Abraham, who is also one of the main producers, plays the role of Vikram Singh, an Indian RAW (Research and Analysis Wing) agent who is put in charge of all the covert operations in the North of Sri Lanka. The mission is to get all the competing Tamil militant groups to put down their weapons and compete in the Northeast provincial council elections. But the situation turns sour from the beginning as Anna Bhaskaran (Ajay Rathnam), commander of the LTF (Liberation of Tamils Front) refuses to comply and is willing to militarily confront the Indian forces. As a result of this, the film explains through Vikram Singh, “They were powerful. In this game, we lost our prime minister, and the Lankan Tamils, their future”.

While the film is overtly about loss, I would like to argue that it is also about recovery. The film offers us an opportunity to revisit memory and ask important questions as to what happened in the early years of the civil war in Sri Lanka. An introspection that is necessary if we are to move forward after the end of the war. Though studded with glaring inconsistencies, selective historical facts and grand conspiracy theories, the film is more importantly an event around which we can facilitate this reconstruction of history. It provides a creative platform for this negotiation to take place, allowing a recovery of our forgotten past.

Missing Facts

What is most striking from the beginning of the film is a complete disregard for historical contextualisation of any sort. The opening sequences show Tamils being killed arbitrarily by unidentified men in both plain clothes and state military apparel. But the facts of who these men might be and what were the causes are left unanswered- and this sets a precedent to introduce a whole host of other vague “facts” throughout the movie.

We are informed that the Sri Lankan ethnic Tamils suffered greatly in Sri Lanka and the refusal of the LTF to lay down arms and surrender justified Indian intervention at that time. It doesn’t take long to identify that Anna Bhaskaran is in fact “Thambi”, the address reserved for Velupillai Pirapaharan within the Tamil movement and LTF stood for his rebel group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The plot goes onto blame the failure of the Indian secret operations and the death of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi on a rogue agent Bala (Prakash Belawadi) even though in reality there was no such reference to leaks in the charge sheet filed by the Indian Special Investigation Team. It becomes evident that this is a convenient embellishment used to excuse perhaps the failings of the very system that Vikram Singh belonged to. The constant portrayal of India as a victim of LTTE violence is unconvincing, to say the least, given India’s military power and nuclear potential in the region.

In addition to this, there is no mention of the events that led up to the civil war itself or how India had not planned to involve its high command initially but was forced to do so due to LTTE’s relentless attitude and fighting potential. The plot is constructed in such a manner that it appears as though the war and violence was entirely the result of Tamils supporting Anna. There is also no mention of persecution of Tamils prior to the civil war or explanation as to why so many thousands had already left the country. And while LTF is shown as a ruthless militant organisation with a strong leadership, the film fails to explore the reasons behind its popularity and mass support base among the Tamil people of the North. The director speaks unconvincingly when he says the film’s bigger message is that “in a civil war, civilians suffer the most”.[3] Unfortunately the first voice the film manages to completely obliterate is that of the Tamil people.

The use of the Madras Cafe itself, an imaginary setting where secret arms deals are made and mastermind assassination plots are concocted, has much room for improvement. Even the plot to kill Rajiv Gandhi is left ambiguous. We are told that LTF’s disgruntlement due to the peace accord is their motivation to kill him. But the assassination isn’t purely demanded from the LTF side, as the film insists that it was sanctioned by “big businesses, arms dealers and big countries” so that they can continue to have influence over the Trincomalee harbour. This conspiracy is dramatised with the help of a white man with an American accent- a portrayal that disregards American support for the Sri Lankan state in its war against the LTTE. While the answer presented repeatedly to all evils in the film is the holding of “Northeast Provincial Council Elections”, there is no mention of the rigging of ballot boxes by India in 1988, with the help of numerous Tamil groups such as the EPRLF, TELO and PLOTE.

The film is also completely silent about the atrocities committed by the IPKF in the North and East of Sri Lanka. In fact the brutal execution of Singh’s wife by the LTF soldiers for no apparent reason whatsoever, eerily recalls IPKF strategies of home invasions, mass executions, rapes and “disappearances”. Long before 2009, when the Sri Lankan state is accused of human rights violations of large proportions, the Indian forces had already been responsible for committing similar large scale violence in Sri Lanka. The unconvincing reporter Jaya (Fakhri), who is a poor representation of journalist Anita Pratap, responds emphatically at the beginning of the movie that “criticising our national policies doesn’t make me anti-national”- but fails to do just that throughout the film. And though she reasons she is in Jaffna “because there are human lives at stake”, sadly it is those human lives that are left unaccounted for in Madras Cafe.

Reading between the lines

Many film and political critics have written extensively about the inaccuracies of the film and how it manages to cut corners by distorting facts. However, the film is interesting most of all for what it leaves unsaid. Throughout the movie there is no reference to the Sinhalese or the Sinhala sentiment towards the war; the film steers clear from looking at the actions of the Sri Lankan state or trying to understand popular opinion among the Sinhalese. In fact the only reference to anything to do with the Sri Lankan state is when a member of the Sri Lankan army is given a bribe to look the other way as the Indian intelligence carries out its political intrigue. The occasional appearance of the same monk in orange robes in the background in Mannar and Jaffna, wearing clothes that do not resemble a Sri Lankan monk’s apparel, is, if at all, an opportunity for comic relief.

This is very interesting as on the one hand while leaving out a crucial part of the puzzle in understanding the conflict, the film also purports that in Indian calculations the Sri Lankan state and particularly the Sinhalese didn’t matter so much at that time. This is revealing of India’s priorities in controlling Sri Lanka’s Tamil dominated north. At the same time, the lack of references to the Sinhalese in the film provides an important space for the Sinhalese to comfortably view the film. There are no accusatory fingers of injustice and human rights violations, and so the guard can be let down in enjoying this work of fiction. And this entry-point is crucial as it allows space for other negotiations to take place.

This space is exposed when the film unwittingly speaks of how the battle against the LTTE was not fought simply on the moral basis of the Tigers being “terrorists”, but because their right to self determination had geopolitical and national implications for other states involved in the Indian Ocean Region. And this I feel is an important aspect that ought to be appreciated much more in Sri Lanka. Especially at a time when it is far more convenient to do an India-America-bashing by Sinhala nationalists, it may be important to take a step back and see the long standing support shown by those states in combating the Tamil militants. The current regime could not have succeeded without this much needed assistance. And the reasons were, as the film reveals, hardly moral- but rather due to international agendas, from which the Sri Lankan state conveniently benefitted throughout the civil war.

Timely and relevant

And while Madras Cafe may not live up to our aesthetic expectations of a Bollywood Zero Dark Thirty, it doesn’t do anything conceptually different from films such as Argo (2012) and Blood Diamond (2006). It can be easily observed in such films that conflicts are often simplified and facts distorted in cinematic renditions. The conflicts often become a sub plot in the effort to valorise the hero and his personal journey. However, films on conflicts, while being reductive of their topic, offer an important medium of representation and interpretation that express particular political views (for example spy thrillers such as the James Bond series are hardly apolitical). And such representations can be used to study the nature and effect of such perspectives, rather than actual facts. And so, if we can stomach another political espionage about American spies getting the better of a Russian conspiracy to take over the world, I am sure we can make some room for Madras Cafe.

It is really sad and regrettable to see the way in which Tamil groups in South India and Britain have reacted to the film, calling for its ban regarding its treatment of the LTTE and its complete distortion of facts. First and foremost Tamils must begin by respecting the value of free speech if they expect to resist its curtailment in Sri Lanka and elsewhere. If Tamils cannot practice it themselves, I see little point in complaining that the Sri Lankan state doesn’t allow it. While I believe that it is crucial to criticise the film for its factual inaccuracies, it is not wise to completely disregard its potential in inspiring discussion. After all Madras Cafe is a work of fiction and must be treated as such.

In fact the more astute decision would have been to encourage more films on this subject matter and have diverse perspectives inform our discussions. Surely the Tamil Nadu cinema industry and Tamil Diaspora have enough funds to attempt this? Instead of trying to stifle voices, let us try and encourage a more democratic spirit and foster more films from South Asia in this genre and particularly on this subject. Films offer perspectives and world views from which we can learn from and they help expand our imagination to empathise with issues we may not have been able to previously. If there is a contrary view to this film’s perspective then it should find expression in writing and in production of other films. By objecting to the expression of a perspective we do more harm to ourselves then we realise.

Some of the people who watched the film in the cinema in Colombo with me were visibly shocked after the film. One woman even ventured to ask loudly “Is this real? Did this happen in Sri Lanka?” which made me think of how- though I took the knowledge of Indian intrigue, IPKF impact and the Mahattaya split within the LTTE for granted- it may not be issues that all Sri Lankans had thought about prior to this film. And I think that is the biggest value the film has to offer for us Sri Lankans. Madras Cafe is timely, not only for coming to our cinemas as we get ready for northern provincial council elections after 1988, but also for the space it allows us to imaginatively revisit the space of conflict in the North. Regardless of its inaccuracies, this space provides an important platform to interrogate what took place during those years.

An interrogation that has been long postponed.

  • David Blacker

    I think it’s unfair of the author to expect historical context and political accuracy in a feature film. It isn’t a documentary.

  • Iman

    Thanks for this analytic piece. Regardless of how well the film captured the hard truth or not, the article sheds light on many aspects of the conflict which helps uninitiated readers like me understand it better.

  • Maxwin Rayen

    movies made in tamilnadu about the genocide and the assassination were either heavily censored or banned in the state, which the author refused to acknowledge.