For those of us born in the late ‘60s and ‘70s, 21st May 1991 is indelibly etched in the mind. That was the day that the then former PM, Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by a human bomb – an assassination that shook the country and was to stay on in our memories for a long time to come. For all his failures and allegations of corruption, Rajiv Gandhi was the blue-eyed boy of Indian politics. He symbolised hope, new blood, new vision- a break from the old school. His untimely and tragic death meant the end of an era before the era had even begun. While many of us heard of it that very night, many woke up to this news and Madras Cafe takes you back to that fateful night; rather builds up to that night at Sriperumbudur with a countdown of events that began over 3 years ago.
To think of it, it does seem surprising that while there are so many movies on J&K and Afghanistan and Taliban, no movie has been based or made on the Sri Lankan war that cost not only that country dearly but cost India as well, both in terms of the IPKF and eventually the assassination of the then PM, Rajiv Gandhi. Madras Cafe explores the hitherto uncharted territory of the Sri Lankan strife and with deft handling, that intersperses fact with fiction, it gives us a riveting piece of cinema. That this movie is the work of director Shoojit Sircar of Vicky Donor fame does seem surprising to say the least. There are no histrionics, no clear-cut easy demarcations of right and wrong and the movie displays a sensitivity that is not seen very often in mainstream Hindi cinema. One man’s revolutionary is another man’s terrorist- the movie holds this dichotomy close to its narrative. How no act is performed in isolation and instead every action or non-action on our part sets in motion a series of apparently unrelated events that culminate in unforeseeable ways, this and such ruminations form a part of the movie’s deeper moorings.
The LTF ( read LTTE), its head Anna ( Prabhakaran), LTF’s rival group, the foreign hand, the leaks in RAW, upright Major Vikram ( Abraham), the war correspondent( Nargis Fakhri), the failing IPKF and beleaguered Indian PM form the central line of the movie but nowhere does it lose sight of the ultimate sufferer or true cost of such wars- the human cost. Be it the Tamil refugees, the rebels, Major Vikram, the RAW chief RD (ably played by Siddharth Basu) or eventually the ex PM- the biggest sufferer is always the human being, no matter who he is. And at the end of it all, you do wonder who lost and who won and was it even worth it.
John Abraham, despite a floundering start, does full justice to his role as an army officer sent to Sri Lanka by RAW for covert operation. He gets no chance to show his chiselled body and, for a change, manages to deliver despite no flesh show. Nargis Fakhri could not have been more convincing as a war correspondent and fares so much better here than she did in her debut movie “Rockstar “.Nowhere does the pace slacken or narrative flounder. For most of us the Tamil strife is just something to be read in GK books. This movie brings it alive. And for those like me, who woke up on the morning of 22nd May, 1991 to the news of Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, it was déjà vu and once again, like that fateful day, left me wondering when will the meaningless strife end?
After my disastrous experience with Rupa Publications’ “Confession” series, “Confessions of a Private Tutor”(http://madwomanintheatticblog.wordpress.com/2013/07/31/confessions-of-a-private-tutor-vikram-mathur/), I was quite wary of picking up the “Metro Reads” from Penguin. This time however I was wiser and instead of purchasing the book, I borrowed it from the library (yeah these things still do exist!) While this book is not half as bad as the earlier one, yet I am glad that I saved my Rs 150/- for I don’t see myself picking it up again. For that matter, I cannot think of re reading any of the books being published these days. As a onetime read, this piece is just about okay but it clearly is not going down the annals of “Indian writing in English” as path breaking ( and I doubt the author had such lofty visions for it to begin with).
First things first, it is aptly under the “metro reads” series for it reflects a very urbane sensibility. It is clearly targeted at the urban, cosmopolitan audience and that too in the age group of 20s and 30s. Can anyone imagine the “heroine” of yesteryears novels or films falling in love with and having an affair with a married man? Or thinking of her virginity as a “monkey “that she has to get off her back once she touches 30? Not quite. The women who behaved and thought like this in our parent’s generations were called “vamps”- the “evil other woman” and definitely not the protagonist. Times and have changed and so has the social conditioning. And this is a work that reflects the changing times, changing sensibilities and the changing social fabric, complete with a dig at the recent rage for reality shows.
While talking about this book, the author said “The book isn’t about losing your virginity, but about understanding who you are.” (http://madhuribanerjee.blogspot.in/2012/04/hindu-losing-my-virginity-and-other.html). Inspiring as it may sound, the book nowhere touches this lofty ideal unless being sexually active (even promiscuous) is counted as being equivalent to an understanding of the self. As the novel begins, Kaveri, the protagonist, is turning 30 and her overriding thought is to lose her virginity. Yes, this is cosmopolitan India where virginity, even in a girl beyond a certain age, is a stigma rather than just a part of life or who she is. What starts out as a quest for a good lay turns into a quest for the one “Great Love” of her life, and like many, Kaveri too falls for the wrong man. Like a true woman in love, she refuses to see the writing on the wall- something that the reader and her own friend, Aditi, can see very clearly. It would all be very well if she would reclaim herself and her life after this experience. But while she does learn to distinguish between “Love, sex and romance” and emerge more clear headed and confident, her confidence seems to spring from her realisation of her sexual prowess rather than anything else. From being a hesitant and guilty virgin at 30 to a sexually active woman having quickies in a Cafe washroom with acquaintances at 32- this is how this apparent “Bildungsroman ( Wikipedia- novel of formation, novel of education,or coming of age story that focuses on the psychological and moral growth of the protagonist and in which, therefore, character change is extremely important)” reads. Nowhere did I get any hint of Kaveri’s growth is the following terms except that the author says so in her take on the book- “The one true love is with yourself. The men are ephemeral. Unless you love yourself completely, you cannot love another person. Moreover, we are born into this world alone and die alone, so it’s important to love yourself”. Sexual emancipation? Yes. Personal growth, development or self-discovery? No. And this is where the novel fails to deliver despite an easy style and narrative.
In today’s fast changing world, one is likely to find a Kaveri, or a variant thereof, in any nook and corner of any Indian metropolis. But till date it is difficult to find a character like D.H Lawrence’s “Paul Morel”, protagonist of Sons and Lovers, regarded as one of the finest examples of Bildungsroman. But then that was Paul Morel, this is Kaveri. Read it with this clarity of thought and expectation.