2013 will always be remembered as a golden year of Hindi Cinema, because on one hand, commercial blockbusters like Chennai Express, Dhoom 3 and Ram-Leela ruled the roost, and on the other, the film industry delivered unforgettable modern classics like Yeh Jawani Hai Deewani and Bhaag Milkha Bhaag. It was also the year that began the trend of content-based movies doing well at the box-office through breakthrough hits like Special 26, Raanjhana, The Lunchbox and Kai Po Che. There was one film that received critical acclaim and yet was declared only an "average" performer at the box office – Shoojit Sircar's espionage thriller, Madras Café, one of Bollywood's most underappreciated cinematic gems.
Madras Café is the story of Vikram Singh (John Abraham), an Indian Intelligence Officer deployed in Sri Lanka on a secret mission to decimate the terrorist outfit, LTF. Vikram finds himself embroiled in a civil war and a conspiracy to assassinate the Indian Prime Minister. The movie does not follow the predictable pattern of an Indian officer solving problems, instead, it has layers of deceit, leaks, foreign involvement and other setbacks that the protagonist gradually faces.
The Indian spy here is very different from that of predecessors like Salman Khan in Ek Tha Tiger or Saif Ali Khan in Agent Vinod. Vikram Singh is not an unbeatable entity through the film. Instead, he faces more setbacks than triumphs, uncommon for an Indian espionage thriller. He goes about his mission with the help of cover military, rather than decimating evil with long action sequences. The movie illustrates how intelligence officers are ordinary people and not superheroes.
Madras Café delves into a space that Bollywood hasn't documented before, the LTTE (The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) and its tussle with India. The film depicts a civil war-torn Sri Lanka, unheard of among the younger generation of film audiences. Even though the names in the movie were altered owing to the potential legal and political backlash (LTTE becomes 'LTF' and Prabhakaran becomes 'Anna'), it's still an informative attempt to chronicle the Sri Lankan Civil war and Tamil conflict. It's obvious that the script was written after extensive research. The character of Jaya (Nargis Fakhri), a war journalist, is clearly inspired by Anita Pratap, the first journalist to interview LTTE chief Prabhakaran.
Madras Café's technical brilliance can't be appreciated enough. Its background score sustains a mood of unrest and suspense throughout and makes up for the filmmaker's bold decision to not include any songs during the film's runtime. Cinematographer Kamaljit Negi recreates the war-torn island impeccably and also manages to capture the action sequences in an honest, rather than an over-the-top, manner that Bollywood is accustomed to.
What makes the film a true winner is its writing. The film's success lies in the fact that the protagonist is unsuccessful despite his efforts. Those who are familiar with history know how the film will end (the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi) and yet, it remains arresting throughout. Writers Somnath Dey and Shubhendu Bhattacharya could have taken cinematic liberties and altered the course of history by making Vikram Singh save the Indian Prime Minister. Instead, they make Vikram a pawn in one of India's greatest intelligence failures.
Madras Café should be referred to as one of the greatest Indian thrillers of all time.