Political films can’t shy away from politics

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Conflict zone A still from Madras Café
Conflict zone A still from Madras Café

Later this month, Sri Lanka will hold its first Northern Provincial Council elections in a quarter-century. Madras Café recalls how those councils came to be: Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi brokered the Indo-Sri Lanka Peace Accord in 1987. Not long after, the resumption of war between Sri Lankan security forces and Tamil militant groups — primarily the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) — meant that those elections were suspended in favour of central rule of Sri Lanka’s Northeast. Even so, the resulting unimplemented 13th Amendment to Sri Lanka’s Constitution pointed the way to a real political solution to Sri Lanka’s national question — the dream of meaningful devolution.

Unfortunately, Madras Café only gestures at what that political change might do for Sri Lanka. What a relevant movie this might have been: a film about international intervention in a small country where civilians’ lives are at stake as a morally questionable government and a morally questionable rebellion battle it out? Today, as the US and other countries determine the nature of their role in Syria’s war, as Sri Lankan society begins to reckon with the consequences of military encroachment on civil spaces, as its post-war Northern Province nears the casting of those longed-for ballots, we’ve arrived at yet another moment when we might learn from such history.

If only director Shoojit Sircar had picked a spot to stand. Instead, those distant rainbows of relevance are blotted out by the dark clouds of his film’s failures: it has neither real characters nor any moral centre. I saw the film with a friend who noted that Madras Café, like India itself, doesn’t hold to a principled position on Sri Lanka; instead, it shifts as is convenient, and hopes to find an angle that will convince you that India is good, even though it has little idea of whether or not that’s actually true. Any good film about politics takes some sort of stand. But as it revisits the already fictionally well-travelled ground of the LTTE’s assassination of Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, Madras Café offers us an off-kilter world in which hardly anything is really anyone’s fault. If only we lived so blamelessly.

This is an action movie in the passive voice: people are displaced and killed, but no one displaces or kills them. Sri Lanka’s Tamils will be given their rights some day, various Indians thunder promisingly, but who will bestow this grace and who is withholding it, no one really appears to know. The movie tries to give its viewers the thrills of a political world, while avoiding that world’s costs, so we see dull diplomatic meetings rather than their human consequences. Perhaps if you take a stand, you may offend someone, and then that someone may not buy a movie ticket. Such fears do not make for brave movies.

One character notes that “we” — India — tried hard to save Rajiv Gandhi, but we lost (why and to whom “we” hesitate to articulate); civilians suffer the most in war, but the film announces suffering rather than humanising it. Tamil civilians are basically there to be shot, slapped and displaced en masse; they mill about in sidelined streams, looking disconsolate, and are referenced when the Indian hero needs to look virtuous. (My companion noted that Malayalees play the major Tamil roles, and that their voices are sometimes barely audible, as though their side of the story is uncomfortable to hear.) This is saviour porn of the kind that Indians would rightly criticise if this were a film about white Westerners in India, but because it is about Indians in Sri Lanka, it passes without comment. (Someone unfamiliar with the situation might actually think that Sri Lanka is part of India.)

Conveniently truncated history elides the fact that India provided training for early LTTE cadres, as well as the Sri Lankan government’s later decision to arm the LTTE to fight Indian troops. India escapes criticism even though the Indian Peace Keeping Forces (IPKF) were known as the Innocent People Killing Force in some parts of northern Sri Lanka, and its atrocities against civilians are well documented [in, among other places, University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna)’s brilliant book of that era, The Broken Palmyra]. Stunningly, it’s not only India that gets off the hook; the Sri Lankan security forces and government might as well not be there (Palmyra includes their human rights violations of that era as well). And although a number of people, Naam Tamilar (We Tamils) among them, have wrongly sought to ban the movie, and have complained that the movie depicts the LTTE unfairly — amazingly, stunningly, seriously, it is actually soft on them too. A passing reference to child conscription does not a critique make. The film’s hero, at one point, says that its leader is a revolutionary to his people. But in addition to assassinating Gandhi, the LTTE killed dissenting Tamils, including civilians, elected officials and members of other militant groups — and this doesn’t come close to an exhaustive list of that organisation’s atrocities.

Yet, one could have forgiven the film’s bad history had it reached for broader emotional accuracy. A writing teacher of mine often quoted the preface to the novel Gerontius (about Sir Edward Elgar): “…I tried to be as factually correct as was interesting.” The film is neither accurate nor interesting. Like an ignorant thief who failed to case the joint in advance, the movie plunders the house of Sri Lankan history and takes only small, shiny trinkets, leaving behind less obvious but more dramatically valuable jewels. Offering the trinkets up for resale, the film disguises its references to actual incidents with poor resettings (the now-defunct LTTE becomes an unbelievably cartoonish LTF; its leader, Prabhakaran, is renamed Anna Baskaran; various others, including Karuna, KP and Anton Balasingham, are conflated and renamed). This offers no dramatic advantage. (For a more compelling story, try Santosh Sivan’s The Terrorist, or Mani Ratnam’s A Peck on the Cheek, or really, just about anything else.)

The film’s hero, if he is to be called that, is Research and Analysis Wing agent Vikram Singh, who is sent to Jaffna to run covert operations and get LTF to participate in the upcoming election. He’s played by John Abraham, who is also a spokesman for Fair & Handsome. (Talk about morally questionable.) Singh, like the overall film, is too good-looking — it’s as though the filmmakers want to notify you that never before has either man or war looked so beautiful. (He would be terrible at covert operations.) Much of the action consists of Singh entering and exiting vehicles, moving from location to location for no discernible reason. Both too good and laughably bad at his job, he obtains secret information easily ( just ask, and ye shall receive), but (spoiler alert!) fails to spot the leak in his own outfit until it is far too late. A journalist is friends with him — who knows why — and yields her sources to him. At least one character helpfully totes around a bottle of what appears to be Sri Lankan arrack. Local liquor! he says. Have some! O, sir, but that I could. Because (another spoiler alert!) does anyone really believe in a hero who mourns more for one of his political leaders than he does for his wife?

The movie’s most embarrassing failures are not those of technical historical accuracy, but of honest feeling and responsibility. Singh-as-India seems to have none. And while it’s true and lamentable that the fates of both India and Sri Lanka might have been different if Rajiv Gandhi had lived, his death does not absolve India of its notable moral failures in Sri Lanka, including those unaddressed IPKF atrocities. We don’t want this to be our Vietnam, an Indian official says; but it was, and a revisionist movie cannot make it otherwise. Nor, of course, does what has happened in Sri Lanka post-war absolve the Tigers and their supporters from responsibility for the heinous crime of assassinating Gandhi.

The film was originally called Jaffna, and was retitled Madras Café. In this title shift, one of the film’s problems emerges. It doesn’t have the fortitude to engage with Sri Lanka. It cannot stay the course. But in light of the ballots to be cast in a few weeks, one hopes that India does.

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