Cast: John Abraham, Nargis Fakhri, Rashi Khanna, Siddharth Basu, Ajay Rathnam
Direction: Shoojit Sircar
In the early 1990s, India's battling rebel Tamils in Sri Lanka - how many losses win this war?
Straight up, Madras Cafe couldn't be more different to director Shoojit Sircar's Vicky Donor. Political, tense, finally explosive, Madras Cafe is no picnic in the neighborhood park. Major Vikram Singh (Abraham) lands in Sri Lanka, heading RAW's covert operations. He must work with colleague Bala to get Anna Bhaskaran (Rathnam), head of the rebel LTF group - "Also known as Tigers" - to accept a peaceful resolution. Vikram knows Anna will be a huge challenge - what surprises him is how many others he must face.
Madras Cafe dives boldly into terrain Bollywood hasn't touched before. Its arsenal features research, respect and bravely, no songs. But it's not arty or preachy anywhere. Its first half is layered, complex trails - leaks, foreign interests, domestic rivals - slowly revealed to Vikram. As RAW boss Robin Dutt (Basu) ups the pressure, Vikram must move fast through sultry, dangerous airs. His foreign journalist friend Jaya (Fakhri, apparently playing real-life journalist Anita Pratap, who first interviewed LTTE chief Prabhakaran) knows this conflict's heart even better than Vikram, whose discoveries, from Sri Lanka to South Block, grow traumatic.
Madras Cafe's true star is its story which builds up to an agonizing end. It brings to life the Lankan war which many viewers were too young to have known. It highlights India's ambiguous role, moving sensitively, taking no sides, except those of relationships involving respect - but no romance - between Vikram and Jaya, duty, victory and loss. Its second half grows more fraught and taut, conspiracies and compulsions becoming clearer. John stays low-key and competent as Vikram while supporting actors, like agents Bala, SP and Vasu, stand out. Restrained performances by the LTF suicide bombers are chilling.
The cinematography is remarkable, shots of huge naval warships, helicopters floating across hills, sunshine on a deadly sea, haunting. Commendably, Sircar never overindulges in gore, keeping Madras Cafe a shifting site of mental violence. Madras Cafe deserves an extra half-star for guts, going for the gunpowder - but with a restrained hand.