Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Movie Review - Madras Café

This isn't going to be a comprehensive review, just a few "sound-bites" of my impressions.

We've seen lots of war movies from Hollywood. I've grown up with movies about the Second World War ("The Bridge Over The River Kwai", "The Guns of Navarone", "The Battle Of The Bulge") and in my youth we saw movies about the Vietnam War ("Apocalypse Now", "Coming Home", "Platoon") and lately, we've begun to see movies about the two Gulf Wars ("Courage under Fire", "The Kingdom", "The Hurt Locker"). 

What's common to all of them is that they are all narrated from the Western point of view, and they concern wars that have touched Western folk. The impact to the West is what makes these wars important, even if their impact on other people is far higher. And of course, wars that don't involve the West at all are never discussed, even if their impact to other people is enormous. Case in point: the Iran-Iraq war. As in all things, the Western view of the world dominates the media, crowding out other voices and other viewpoints. [There are exceptions. Sometimes, stories of human poignancy trump Western parochialism and break through the media silence, e.g., "Hotel Rwanda", "The Kite Runner". But these are only exceptions. As a rule, Western characters need to be impacted for a story to be considered worth telling.]

Measured as a cultural force, Bollywood and Al Jazeera are probably the only non-Western voices that command a significant worldwide audience. Bollywood is no stranger to war movies, since India has been shaped in a significant way by its partition and the wars with Pakistan. [My favourite story, a coming-of-age tale set against the backdrop of the Kargil war, is "Lakshya". A more comprehensive, if somewhat rambling, movie on the Kargil war is "LoC Kargil".] But in spite of some excellent storytelling, no one outside the subcontinent ever seems to be interested.

The East Bengal genocide that culminated in the liberation of Bangladesh is the single biggest South Asian tragedy since partition, with anywhere from a million to 3 million civilians killed. That story has been told on screen many times, but it has never had a significant non-Bengali audience. No Westerner was harmed in the course of that tragedy, and so, from the perspective of the world at large, it may as well never have happened.

The next biggest South Asian war as measured in blood and human suffering, and far bigger than most of the Indo-Pakistan skirmishes, is the Sri Lankan civil war. Grinding its way over 30 wasted years, it is a story of folly all through, with avoidable causes and lessons that have still not been learnt. It is another non-Western story that begs to be told. And Shoojit Sircar's "Madras Café" is the first attempt in that direction.

The very photogenic John Abraham and Nargis Fakhri in Shoojit Sircar's violent docu-drama

The official movie trailer

There are many factual errors that have been criticised in this movie, to be sure, ranging from the superficial to the substantive. But flawed as it is, the creation of this work is to be welcomed. It has started a conversation, if nothing else.

I have been an amateur student of world history for as long as I can remember, and have followed the Sri Lankan conflict since the early 1980s. I remember reading with horror about the Colombo riots of 1983, as reported in Indian newspapers. I also remember wondering why the Indian government was sitting by doing nothing while the Sri Lankan army was persecuting the Tamils in the north. And I remember feeling relieved in June 1987 when Rajiv Gandhi's government chose the middle path of airdropping food supplies over northern Sri Lanka, sending out a message to the Sri Lankan government that it would not stand idly by, and yet stopping short of actual military action.

It seemed at the time that President Junius Jayawardene's government saw the writing on the wall, since the airdrop was shortly followed by an invitation to India to send a peacekeeping force to Sri Lanka. But very soon, this became India's quagmire. Jayawardene, the wily fox, had seemingly trapped the inexperienced Rajiv Gandhi in a Vietnam-style guerilla war that India could not win.

Indian PM Rajiv Gandhi (left) signs an agreement with Sri Lankan President JR Jayawardene (right). The old fox died peacefully in his sleep at the age of 90. The brash young man stumbled into the old man's war and paid with his life.

However, even at the time, we knew that there was more to the story than this simplistic summary. Indira Gandhi had been fishing in Sri Lanka's troubled waters for years. While the Sinhalese did create the initial problem by deliberately disenfranchising the Tamils, Indira Gandhi helped the Tamil militant groups in a bid to keep the Sri Lankan government off balance. That was simply her DNA and her style, which she used against opponents both at home and abroad. The similar meddling she engaged in in Punjab created the Sikh terrorist monster that ultimately cost her her life.

Tamil Nadu's politicians were also enthusiastic partners of the militants, giving them the run of the state's coast, hiding places among the mangroves and a thriving traffic in arms. India's hands were thus hardly clean. It's one thing to support the rights of the Tamils against a very real political disenfranchisement in a neighbouring country. It's quite another for India to do in Sri Lanka exactly what it was accusing Pakistan of doing in Kashmir.

Even after the Indian Peace-Keeping Force (IPKF) landed in Sri Lanka and began to disarm the militants, stories began to emerge of Indian favouritism. There were many Tamil militant groups, of which the LTTE became the best-known in later years, but I remember others in 1989 with names like PLOTE and TELO. One of the smaller groups was called the ENDLF, and this was the group that India seemed to favour unfairly. While other militant groups had to hand their weapons over to the IPKF, the ENDLF cadres were seen strutting about with their guns. Little wonder that the LTTE grew alarmed at the selective disarming and pulled out of the peace accord.

So yes, the LTTE did break the accord, but it was at least partly because India didn't play fair as a referee.

The IPKF bungled its way through its peacekeeping duties almost from Day One. Its first commander was the flamboyant Maj Gen Harkirat Singh, who thought the whole exercise would be a walkover and loved holding press conferences. Once it became clear that Harkirat was in over his head, he was replaced by the vastly more serious and low-key Lt Gen AS Kalkat. But he couldn't retrieve the situation either, and the IPKF finally withdrew in disgrace.

There were a dozen other wrinkles to the conflict as well. In addition to all the militant Tamil groups, there was a moderate political faction called TULF, led by the mild-mannered Amirthalingam, who was rewarded with a bullet for his moderation. As in Kashmir, moderates who are willing to talk to the government are executed by the militants, and peace never really has a chance.

It's unrealistic to expect Shoojit Sircar's movie to go into all of these issues, especially when it pretends to be a work of fiction. Hopefully, other moviemakers, encouraged by its commercial success, will follow with more focused narratives. Given the limited time into which to squeeze fictionalised versions of real-life people and events, it's quite amazing what the movie does manage to do.

For example, it was only after some research that I realised there were strong parallels between the movie's journalist who interviews the militants' leader and the real-life Anita Pratap's interview with the LTTE's Pirabakaran. Even more striking is the parallel between the movie's Malayalam-speaking RAW Madras desk head Bala and the real-life KV Unnikrishnan, also RAW's Madras desk head, who had been similarly honey-trapped by foreign intelligence agencies, but whose story remains unknown to most. In retrospect, the conspiracy theory espoused by the movie seems increasingly plausible. According to this theory, foreign corporate interests with advisors drawn from the ranks of retired secret service men, rather than just governments, were responsible for arming the militants and prolonging the civil war.

As an Indian movie about Sri Lanka, "Madras Café" suffers from its own version of parochialism. In the minds of Indians, the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi towers over so many other events of that war, and Sri Lankans can be forgiven for viewing this as Indian self-importance and arrogance. But it isn't all parochialism. After all, it was Rajiv Gandhi's assassination that shattered the cosy romance between India and the Tamil militants, paving the way for the latter's eventual defeat by the Sri Lankan army, so that was a watershed event even from a dispassionate analysis.

One of the strengths of this movie is the depth of the "bench", i.e., the uniformly good performances by all characters in the movie, not just the leads. They were all very believable. And that's my definition of good acting. If I find a character authentic, it says to me that the actor has done a good job. By that token, all the actors in "Madras Café" were excellent. So I really can't understand the comment I keep coming across in multiple reviews - "John Abraham can't act." I think this is just a euphemism for "John Abraham is very good-looking and I'm jealous"!

Another notable aspect of "Madras Café" is the complete absence of songs and dances so characteristic of the Bollywood genre. I guess this burnishes its credentials as a "serious" movie. But by whose standards, I wonder. Different cultural traditions have different styles of telling stories, and it's disturbing that one culture's (i.e., Western culture's) yardstick of "serious" storytelling has begun to influence others. More on this in a separate post.

In short, I think "Madras Café" is more of a conversation-starter than a definitive documentary of the Sri Lankan civil war. I hope it opens the floodgates, because we need more non-Western voices talking about the events that have affected non-Western people. It may not gather much of a Western audience, even with its attempts to be a Western-style movie. But it will surely capture the traditionally large Bollywood audience in Asia and Africa, and that's a good thing. There are important aspects of world history that should not be neglected, and if non-Western people don't talk about the events that have affected them, no one will.
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