Madras Cafe: Intercept The Half-Truth
Originally published on Countercurrents
Some sections of the Indian media may be going gaga over the ‘realistic’, ‘non-dramatic’ film ‘Madras Cafe’ of Shoojit Sircar. Some have, rather shamelessly, compared it to Zero Dark Thirty – in reality, GI Joe: Retaliation is a more gripping watch. While the poor sense of aesthetics of these pseudo-critics is lamentable, their contempt for history as it happened leaves much to question.
Selective history, grand conspiracy theory, not-so-subtle Indian patriotism all go into the making of a movie that principally exonerates India from all culpability of the brutal war crimes committed against the Tamils by the IPKF. From the start till the end, the subtext of the movie is to project India, a nuclear power state with the fourth largest army in the world, as a victim of the LTTE. For the record, at the height of the IPKF-LTTE war, over 100000 Indian soldiers armed to the teeth confronted about 3000 LTTE cadres. Despite this, India lost.
“They were powerful. In this game, we lost our prime minister, and the Lankan Tamils, their future,” confesses RAW agent Vikram Singh (played by John Abraham) to a Christian priest. The entire movie is the confession of Vikram to the priest, from his activities as a RAW agent in IPKF occupied Jaffna, to the failure of the RAW to break the LTTE, to their failure to stop Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination.
The numerous atrocities suffered by the Eelam Tamils under the IPKF, the murders, tortures, rapes and disappearances, do not form part of his confession. Thus, no mention of the same in the film. On the other hand, the reel LTTE are shown as fanatics, who even murder the wife of Vikram in India in their attempts to get to him. I am yet to hear of a single case where the real LTTE has deliberately targeted the family of officers or soldiers of even the genocidal Sri Lankan military.
The LTTE, shown in the film as Liberation of Tamils Front (LTF), are shown as some intransigent armed rebel group that has support of the local population. Why did the armed struggle come about, what did the Sinhala state do to create such a situation, why did the Tigers oppose the Indian solution of 13th Amendment, why did the Tamil people stand with the ‘rebel group’, and what did the IPKF actually do in the course of its intervention – these are questions not even considered by the filmmaker. But the words “provincial council elections” are repeated to the point of being a slogan throughout the movie. Contrast this with the bare minimal usage of the word ‘Sinhalese’ in the movie – it is as if they had no role to play at all. The tagline for the movie was “Intercept the truth”.
The first half of the film is concerned with the RAW agent’s covert operations in Jaffna. These include scenes that allude to RAW’s role in supporting Tamil groups antithetical to the struggle for Tamil Eelam, the Mahattaya split and so. Of course, the intelligence failure in the famous ‘Jaffna University Helidrop’ is underplayed, though the filmmaker grudgingly acknowledges the superior intelligence of the Tigers at that time.
The second half of the movie, concerned with the Rajiv Gandhi assassination, is actually banal. Other movies like ‘Mission 90 Days’ have covered the subject with more intensity, and with far more venom. Madras Cafe tells us that its LTF was a foot-soldier of foreign forces in carrying out the plot.
“Corporations, big countries, big organizations,” in short, “economic hitmen” supported the LTF, we are told. The purpose is “economic control, business deals and large arms contracts,” it is asserted. An intelligence officer informs Vikram that the war is for Trincomalee, that the foreign forces wanted the LTF in power so that they can get the harbour, and that this would be a threat for India. Last time I heard however, it was the US that gave Sri Lanka effective advice in counterinsurgency strategy to remove the LTTE from the coveted harbour.
“At no stage did we ever consider India as an enemy force. Our people always consider India as our friend. They have great expectations that the Indian super power will take a positive stand on our national question,” LTTE leader Velupillai Pirapaharan said in his Heroes’ Day address on 27 November 2008. He has never referred to any other country in such terms.
However, Anna Bhaskaran, the movie’s celluloid version of Pirapaharan, tells in an interview to British journalist Jaya (a sad allusion to the Indian journalist Anita Pratap) that he will even consider taking help from the West to wage their struggle.
This is the other subtext of the movie. India is justified in assisting unitary Sri Lanka, irrespective of what the latter does, else foreign powers will intervene and that will be against India’s ‘national interests’.
To be fair to the movie, it has its share of laughs.
For instance, the scene where Jaya interviews Anna in English and the leader of the Tamil struggle responds to it – in Hindi.
The climax was dark comedy. Vikram ends his confession and walks out of the church muttering lines from Rabindranath Tagore’s famous poem from Gitanjali “Where the mind is without fear…” The poem is a utopian vision of an ideal democratic country. Unitary Sri Lanka, which India has been supporting till now, is the perfect antithesis of the spirit of the poem.
The line best suited for the context of Madras Cafe, however, is Alfred Tennyson’s “That a lie which is half a truth is ever the blackest of lies”.