The movie “Madras Cafe,” which opened in India and elsewhere in the world recently, seeks to chronicle the Sri Lankan civil war through the events leading up to the assassination in 1991 of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi of India.
In the southern state of Tamil Nadu, protests from several Tamil groups, who share strong ethnic and cultural ties with the Tamil minority of Sri Lanka, claimed that the film portrays Tamils in poor light. The protests virtually ensured that the movie was not released in the state. The Tamil Nadu government, in failing to assuage these objections, has once again given credence to an illusory faction’s hollow right not to be offended. But free speech issues apart, “Madras Cafe” raises larger ethical questions and illustrates how Bollywood hobbles when it attempts political subjects.
“Madras Cafe” may be brave, taut and original by Bollywood standards, but it glosses over several significant specifics of the Sri Lankan civil war. It serves, at best, as a morally disinterested record of the plotting and the consequent assassination of Mr. Gandhi and, at worst, as contemptuously partisan, effectively ignoring the plight of Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority.
The central question that “Madras Cafe” raises is whether a most gruesome war of huge political substance can be turned into an impassive drama that eschews the fuller facts. The movie is, in the words of its director, Shoojit Sircar, “fiction adapted from history.” Actor John Abraham, who also co-produced the movie, plays Vikram Singh, an Indian intelligence agent, and the story follows the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (referred to as the L.T.F. in the film) as they plot to assassinate Mr. Gandhi (referred to simply as the “Ex-P.M.”).
The movie opens in Kasauli in the northern state of Himachal Pradesh, with a slovenly and drunk Agent Singh waking up to television news of the death of Sri Lanka’s prime minister, reportedly at the hands of the L.T.F. Mr. Singh, visibly upset, walks into a church with a half bottle of rum in hand. He then tells a priest the story of how India’s former prime minister also suffered a similar fate at the hands of the L.T.F., due to no fault of his own.
The narration begins with a sequence of shots aimed at setting the historical background. According to the movie, 1989 was the most crucial phase in Sri Lanka’s history. An ethnic conflict between the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority had apparently taken a turn for the gruesome with thousands of Tamil civilians losing their lives. Jaffna was stripped of basic requirements, and the Tamil population was slowly displaced.
Many Tamils took to joining Anna Bhaskaran (standing in for Velupillai Prabhakaran, who was killed by the Sri Lankan military in 2009) and his L.T.F., which was fighting for an independent Tamil land. And this, the viewer is told, was the genesis of a bloodbath, which saw Tamil refugees flood India. The Indian government concerned by the situation decided to broker an accord with Sri Lanka, and sent a peacekeeping force. But Mr. Bhaskaran rejected the pact. He saw the peace force as antithetical to Tamil interests, and decided to wage a brutal guerrilla war.
In so narrating the story, “Madras Cafe” ignores decades of history preceding the Indian government’s direct intervention. It will have you believe that it was the L.T.F’s rise in the late 1980s, and its demand for a free Tamil country, which prompted the most gruesome phase of the civil war.
Madras Cafe doesn’t even mention “Black July” in 1983 when a weeklong riot by Sinhalese mobs was incited by the killing of 13 Sri Lankan military personnel by the Tamil Tigers. The riot, which went unpunished, even finding the implicit support of the Sri Lankan government, according to reports, led to the deaths of thousands of innocent Tamils, causing more than 100,000 to flee the island for refuge in India. The event is widely believed to be the trigger for the full-blown civil war in the country, which in 26 years would kill more than 100,000 people.
In the years that immediately followed “Black July,” the Indian government led by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi armed and financed the Tamil rebels. The practice continued under her son Rajiv’s government. In fact, on June 5, 1987, the Indian Air Force dropped tons of food and medicine by parachute to Jaffna, the de facto Tamil capital, which was under siege by Sri Lankan forces.
In tracing Indian intervention in Sri Lanka to 1989, by ignoring earlier history, “Madras Cafe” misrepresents a conflict of enormous import. It overlooks both the Indian peacekeeping force’s alleged atrocities against Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority and the genocidal violence sponsored by the Sri Lankan government that saw at its culmination more than 40,000 Tamils killed in the final months of the war, which ended in May 2009.
Similarly, while the Indian intervention is shown as necessary and unavoidable, its legacy, which climaxed with the virtually apocalyptical and chilling battles in 2009, captured with searing detail in Channel 4’s documentary film, “Killing Fields,” is left unexplained.
Had “Madras Cafe” merely sought to record the assassination of Mr. Gandhi, one could have looked beyond these gaping gaps. But Mr. Sircar’s ambition is decidedly loftier. “The bigger message” of the film he told AFP, “is that in a civil war, civilians suffer the most.” Yet, the movie seems to suggest no such thing.
Time and again, in Madras Cafe, we are showed Tamils ruthlessly murdered at the hands of an arcane force. Equally, we see Tamils as part of the L.T.F. killing with wanton abandon. Its leader Bhaskaran is constantly described as an “ideologue.”
But the origins of Bhaskaran’s supposed ideology — triggered, among other things, in the 1970s when the Sri Lankan government introduced the policy of standardization to rectify the low numbers of Sinhalese being accepted into university in Sri Lanka —and the makings of the L.T.F. are left to imagination.
Both the battle at the root of the Tamil struggle for independence — caused, among other things by the burning, allegedly by Sinhalese police officers, in 1981 of more than 100,000 old and rare Tamil books at the Jaffna Public Library — and the Sri Lankan government’s role in violently suppressing any struggle for independence find no mention in the movie.
According to Mr. Sircar, he has “used real references, portrayed rebel groups, revolutionary freedom fighters, Indian Peace Keeping Forces [and] shown how India got involved [in] the chaos”. But history is not what Madras Cafe is based on, but what’s overlooked, and often discounted.
India, if you believed “Madras Cafe,” had little choice but to intervene in Jaffna. On the contrary, the Indian Peace Keeping Force’s participation, imposed by the peace accord signed by Mr. Gandhi, was a rash decision, whose consequences are still reverberating.
The Indian Peace Keeping Force’s participation in atrocitiesin the region is also outside the domain of Mr. Sircar’s story. It is widely believed that in the course of its pursuit of suspected Tamil militants the Indian Peace Keeping Force tortured prisoners with electric shock treatments and attacked Tamilian civilians arbitrarily. An Amnesty International report documents the tremendous impunity showed by India’s peacekeeping forces in Sri Lanka.
Even the movie’s professed central theme, the plot to assassinate the former prime minister, is short on details and sounds almost laughably simple and prosaic. The crux of what might have prompted Mr. Bhaskaran to design the act is treated with a baffling insouciance.
The audience is told that the L.T.F. is upset at the peace accord, which sees the Indian Peace Keeping Force arrive in a pathetically stricken Jaffna. A return to power for the former prime minister would seemingly run counter to the L.T.F.’s interests. So a plan is hatched to assassinate him in concert with an unknown business syndicate. An insider in India’s intelligence unit helps these ideas come to fruition: he keeps the L.T.F. advised of the Indian government’s tactics well in advance of their enforcement. The L.T.F.,having trained a few members to kill the former prime minister by detonating a suicide bomb, achieves its end in spite of Agent Singh’s heroic, nearly single-handed efforts to thwart the conspiracy.
The events, although supposedly fictional, run counter to the unraveling of the plot to kill Mr. Gandhi by India’s Special Investigation Team. In the charge sheet filed by the Special Investigation Team, 41 people were named as accused, and as having conspired to kill Mr. Gandhi. The Special Investigation Team did not mention an inside job, or the involvement of any operative of the Research & Analysis Wing in the conspiracy, a feature that comprises a major part of the movie’s plot.
While the suicide bomber and her immediate cohorts are depicted as robotic creatures, shorn of ideology, other significant operatives curiously find no mention. Pottu Amman, who had according to the Special Investigation Team “designed and arranged the execution of the objective of the criminal conspiracy,” and Akila, who had “planned and arranged the objective of the conspiracy,” are absent from the movie.
But what’s most striking and disturbing is the complete eschewal in the film of Sri Lanka’s role in the conflict. Today, we know how the civil war ended, and what created its foundations. In irresponsibly abjuring any interest in such events, Mr. Sircar has turned a conflict of astounding purport into a morally impersonal drama.
Suhrith Parthasarathy is a lawyer and journalist based in Chennai. He can be reached on Twitter @suhrith