Madras Cafe vividly depicts the horrors of the Sri Lankan civil war, while providing a glimpse into the complexities of efforts to bring the conflict to an end. The spy story at the core of the film isn’t watertight, but Madras Cafe is stirring nonetheless.
The narrative is bookended by the narration of a former Indian Army officer, Vikram Singh (John Abraham). Struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder and alcoholism, Vikram recounts his role in the Sri Lankan civil war to a priest, hoping to ease the guilt from multiple deaths he was unable to prevent.
Flashing back to several years earlier, Vikram is sent to Jaffna, a city in northern Sri Lanka, to work with Indian intelligence agents to influence local elections in the hopes of ending the civil war through political reconciliation. This proves difficult not only because Anna (Ajay Rathnam), the leader of a militant separatist group, doesn’t trust the Indian government’s promises to protect the rights of ethnic Tamils in Sri Lanka, but also because there is a mole working within the intelligence service.
Because of the complex nature of the conflict and the different factions operating with opposing goals, there are a lot of people and places to keep track of. This doesn’t pose a huge problem in following the story, but rather it highlights the impossibility of Vikram’s task. With none of the parties willing to compromise or trust one another, Vikram seems to be risking his life even though he has no hope of success.
The second half of Madras Cafe focuses on an assassination plot targeting a former Indian prime minister running for reelection on the promise to end the war in Sri Lanka. It’s revealed early on that the plot is successful, so the events show Vikram and other government agents as they try (and fail) to stop the assassination.
This portion of the story isn’t nearly as detailed as the events of the first half, to its detriment. It’s not entirely clear who is driving the assassination plot or why, apart from scenes of secret meetings in London’s Madras Cafe between Anna’s representatives and agents from “the West.” The movie doesn’t attempt to explain why Western governments would support the militants in opposition to an Indian government trying to stop a war in a neighboring country. This may be common knowledge to those familiar with the details of the real-life conflict, but a few lines of explanation wouldn’t have slowed the story.
The other disappointing aspects of the plots involving Westerners is that the characters who speak strictly in English sound as though they are reading their lines from cue cards. That goes for American actress Nargis Fakhri, as well. Fakhri plays Jaya, a British journalist who is nothing more than a plot device.
Abraham is good as Vikram, but his performance is too subdued. Abraham’s strongest role in the film is as its producer, where he again shows a knack for choosing interesting stories.
The depictions of the brutality of war are Madras Cafe‘s strongest suit. There’s a lot of blood and a high body count in the film, which is important for impressing upon the audience the horror of a civil war that lasted nearly thirty years and cost tens of thousands of lives. This is definitely not a film for the whole family.
The film’s score is understated and appropriate for the grim imagery. There are no song-and-dance numbers, which would’ve felt out-of-place. Though not flawless, Madras Cafe respects its audience and provides plenty of material for further reflection. It’s a film worth seeing.