BY Prabhat Kumar
I watched Shoojit Sircar’s film Madras Café (MC) early this week. Commenting on a film released three-four weeks ago, when we are flooded with new Hindi films every Friday, is a lazy exercise and also involves the risk of going unread. Nevertheless, I am eager to share my thoughts on MC.
For a person who has a superficial knowledge about the minute factual details regarding Ex-PM Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination in the context of Sri Lankan ethnic strife –involving Sinhala dominated Sri Lankan state, minority Tamil nationalist organization, Indian state apparatus– the film has been an engaging experience. While watching, however, I also somewhat felt irritated for being unable to keep pace with the movie. On an afterthought I have excused myself. Probably it is the film’s shortcoming, not mine. Quite contrary to the generally overstretched Hindi films, MC might be over edited! Audience is bombarded with fast-paced information. Back and forth movement of camera on the scale of the narrative’s time could have been avoided. Notwithstanding these minor flaws, on the whole, it appears to be a good film. A director’s film, indeed, that has got excellent support from his cameraman (especially footage of violence and suffering by civilians) and good assistance from the film’s background scores. At the level of acting the co-producer John Abraham (Indian RAW agent in Sri Lanka) has not done badly with his unchanging expressions. Nargis Faqri, a British war journalist who speaks with American accent, is not very bad either. Characters like by Bala (Prakash Belawadi), the John’s boss in Sri Lanka and the RAW chief in India (Siddharth Basu) were the most impressive and appeared immaculate in their performances. Other characters, even minor ones, like SP (Rajeev Pandey) who taps phone conversations, were looking natural exhibiting a better range of expressions than John.
Slowly, as I emerged from this engaging entertainer, I found that film had grown on me. Although very important in its own right, I was not bothered about facticity of an avowedly fictional political thriller. Instead, the cinematic narrative of a real political event struck a chord: the violence of Sinhala majoritarian nationalism pitted against its Tamil ethnic minority, counter-violence of the Tamil ethno-nationalism, incalculable suffering of the civilians (Tamil as well as non-Tamils) and moreover, the role of Indian state and its security apparatus in the ethnic strife of Sri Lanka, last but not the least, the global network of military-industrial business interests in the security market of nation-states (referred to in passing but far from staying unnoticed). For a person like me, who watches almost all good-bad-ugly Hindi films, it is the sensitive (but safe!) treatment of such subjects that was a new experience.
Before I wanted to pen down my musings, howsoever politically inflated it may appear below, I checked how has this film been reviewed and received in (English) media. I found most of what I have written about MC’s craft above had already been told. However, only a couple of reviews had noticed what I mentioned in the preceding paragraph: the significance of the film’s ‘political’ subject. Reviews dealing with the political side of the film, I feel, have mentioned and lauded only the too obvious (or should I say convenient to comment upon!) a subject: human tragedy of the strife captured by brilliant camera work. Other glaring and not so glaring but certainly inconvenient aspects of the film have gone uncommented.
To be precise, in my opinion, the film does not show, for e.g., early background of the nasty workings of the majoritarian Sinhala nation-state, what actually in the early years Tamil resistance stood for, etc. I will refrain from commenting further on what MC does not cover. After all, MC is essentially an ‘Indian statist narrative’, which tries to be self-consciously realistic by resisting melodrama. John, an Indian army officer, is the sutradhar, the narrator-protagonist. He tells us the story in the capacity of a participant observer, a RAW agent in Sri Lanka. He is sent there to materialise what Indian state could not do politically and officially. John is there (like Rambo!) to curtail the hegemony of LTF (read LTTE) by pitting other Tamil nationalist rivals against Anna (read Prabhakaran). However, he fails because of betrayal by his locally entrenched superior (another RAW official who is coincidentally Tamil). A duty-bound official suffers personal injuries, physical as well as emotional. More importantly perhaps, the sutradhar – the honest Indian citizen is a broken personality who later sank himself into alcohol for his inability to avert a ‘national’ disaster. The primary point of his telling (starting with hackneyed scene of confession to a priest in the Church) is to underline his failure to save his ex-prime minister (Rajiv Gandhi), because of the moles in the state’s own apparatus. There are also other moments, big and small, in the film’s narrative, the political import of which, I believe, could not be ignored. Remember the crucial but brief conversation between ex-intelligence man (played by Dibang) and the protagonist John in Thailand when the actual motive of the planned assassination is told. Through the sutradhar, the audience is told that big business houses of world negotiate through footloose (ex-) diplomats and (ex-) security servicemen for the smooth running and profit of their international enterprise. They function extraterritorially; they buy passage for their business; and directly or indirectly finance killing, warfare, also sale arms (?) to the state or ‘non-state’ actors (here LTTE).
To state the obvious, what is clearly shown in this ‘Indian statist’ narrative is the messy and unapologetic role of the Indian state and its security agencies in the ethnic strife of Sri Lanka. What is more, the film also shows (in the largely nationalist vein) the ‘extra-legal’ global network of military-industrial business interests in the security market of nation-states in which men from Indian establishment may have a clear stake and involvement.
Let me explain. Indian state and its security apparatus are shown to be deeply involved in the extra-legal and extra-territorial activities in the neighbouring region. How security agencies of the big and powerful nation-states, and India is no exception, manoeuvre the political happenings of the region without caring for its tragic human consequences. Military establishments are no exception to corruption, individual greed for money and power. These are issues which are unsurprising to those who engage in some ways or the other, directly or indirectly, with everyday work and practice of the state security agencies. Yet these are also the issues, about which discussion is hardly found to be taking place in public– discussion which could raise questions on its moral-political legitimacy. Probably, a large part of its citizenry (of course those who do not face violence directly) believes in their nation-state’s projected holy self-image; that the nation and its saviour army are too virtuous and sacrosanct to be involved in such acts. Profoundly undemocratic aspect of such involvements is hardly ever talked about in open. On the contrary, such discussions are either systematically discouraged, or take place from the statist perspective where interest of the state-apparatus is projected as the ‘national’ interest. Those who would dare to raise such issues from the non-statist position are received with suspicion in the age of jingoistic nationalism nurtured and propagated by the state and its embedded media. If one talks about India’s diabolic role in sabotaging the democratic upsurge in neighbouring Nepal, if one talks about the possibility of Indian security establishment’s entrenched interest and role in tearing apart the democratic upheaval on its own frontiers, s/he runs the risk of being targeted as ‘anti-national’.
The film, intentionally or unintentionally, brings this issue home. Although told from the perspective of an Indian state official for whom such illegal acts are dirty necessities (for the problem always already exists and initiated by the ‘other’; only way to save the nation is to break the ranks of ‘other’ nation/s operational either in the form of state or waiting-to-be-state!), the film visiblises the darker side of security discourse of the nation-states. It also exposes the transnational nexus of business executives and (retired!) security hawks, a nexus that has clear political consequences not only at the levels of high politics of the nation-state but also for the mass of people in general. MC, apart from being good in terms of its craft, may also be appreciated for this.
However, appreciation of MC as a film, which renders the illegitimate aspects of nation-state and its security apparatus visible on the silver screen, is contingent upon the way the film is received. Critics’ articulation of MC’s reception in public sphere has hardly spelt out this problematic aspect of the movie. A general silence probably reflects consent or at best indifference to such practices of the security state. Tamil nationalist groups have raised political objections. (Some wanted a ban on the film, which is of course unjustified.) But theirs is a populist opposition which accuses the movie for being biased against the (now dead) Tamil militarist-nationalist chief Anna (Prabhakaran) and his fief, the LTTE – a waiting-to-be-state. An opposition which hardly takes into account the issues and problems underlined above.
Prabhat Kumar, Assistant Professor of History, Presidency University, Kolkata