Madras Café” loosely chronicles the events that led to the assassination of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi… Bollywood filmmaker Shoojit Sircar explains what led him to probe the subject of Sri Lanka’s civil war, how he developed the characters for his movie, and why he feels the film is far from anti-Tamil…
Bollywood filmmaker Shoojit Sircar says it took him seven years of research to pen the script for “Madras Café,” an espionage-thriller set against the backdrop of Sri Lanka’s bloody civil war. “It’s a highly volatile topic,” Mr. Sircar said ahead of the film’s release in India recently. “I had to be sure my script didn’t deviate from events that played out at the time.”
But despite his caution, “Madras Café” which loosely chronicles the events that led to the assassination of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi has run into trouble with political parties in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. The film, they say, portrays Tamils in bad light. “Tamilians are painted as villains in the film,” according to a senior official from the regional Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam party in Tamil Nadu. The MDMK official said he hadn’t seen the film, but had “heard about it being anti-Tamil from several knowledgeable sources.”
Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese-dominated population fought a brutal 26-year war against the country’s Tamil minority that killed an estimated 100,000, largely Tamil civilians, before its violent conclusion in 2009. Political parties in India’s Tamil Nadu state, which is separated from Sri Lanka by the narrow Palk Strait but ethnically linked to its Tamil population, have routinely spoken in favor of the island nation’s Tamils, whom they allege, were tortured during the war. Tamil insurgents particularly Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam were also sheltered in Tamil Nadu during the conflict.
In 1987 despite opposition from regional parties India’s then Prime Minister Mr. Gandhi brokered a peace deal with the Sri Lankan Government. Under the agreement, Indian peacekeeping forces were dispatched to Sri Lanka, primarily with the aim of disarming the LTTE. The move, widely criticised by India’s Tamil parties, backfired. In 1991, Mr. Gandhi was assassinated by a Tamil LTTE suicide bomber, a development that strained New Delhi’s relationship with Colombo.
Political parties in Tamil Nadu argue that “Madras Café,” which is set in the early 1990s, depicts Tamils as militants, an allegation Mr. Sircar, the director, denies. Fearing a political backlash, movie theaters in Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu, opted ot to run the film even though it’s received the go-ahead fromIndia’s Film Censor Board. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Mr. Sircar explains what led him to probe the subject of Sri Lanka’s civil war, how he developed the characters for his movie, and why he feels the film is far from anti-Tamil.
What inspired you to theme a film around Sri Lanka’s civil war?
Shoojit Sircar : I was a young student when the war in Sri Lanka broke out in the late 1980s. While growing up, all that we read in the papers was the war. The mounting death toll, the violence, the atrocities, newspapers would give a blow-by-blow account of them all. I was angered and outraged, yes, but at the same time, also intrigued. Intrigued by what pushed rebel groups many formed by young students like me to pick up guns. Intrigued also by how India got itself entangled a war that was not theirs to fight. For many, many years, these questions played up in my mind. They’re what led me to finally pick up the camera.
What was the most challenging part about shooting the film?
Shoojit Sircar: To keep it real. Because the film is based on a historic world event, it was important that the mannerism of my characters – peace forces, rebel groups, intelligence officials – not be too different than those they were modeled on. To recreate the backdrop of a civil war, to replicate events played out at the time, and in turn, evaluate how characters would respond, was a nerve-wracking task.
It took several years of research to develop your characters. What did this research entail?
Shoojit Sircar: We scrutinised over 10,000 pages – ranging from court documents and commission reports to books and news clippings – to make sure the narrative of the film didn’t tamper with events that unfolded at the time. In fact, even my sets were built using wartime pictures we retrieved from the archives of ‘The Hindu’, ‘The Indian Express’ and the ‘Illustrated Weekly of India’.
Many say the film is anti-Tamil, what do you say to that?
Shoojit Sircar: Absolutely not. I’m a conscious filmmaker. More importantly, I’m a proud Indian. Why would I show my own country in bad light? The idea was not to create a controversy or sensationalise the war. The idea was to give audiences an insight to war that altered ties between India and Sri Lanka, a subject no mainstream Bollywood film has explored. It took guts to make this film.
How would you respond to groups calling for a ban on the film?
Shoojit Sircar: They have every right to voice their view. I’m even open to a public debate about what they find wrong in the film. What I do find odd though, is that most groups are calling for a ban on a film they haven’t yet seen. You can boycott the film once you’ve seen; I don’t have a problem with that. But you can’t call for a blanket ban based on speculation.
Your previous film “Vicky Donor” – one of the biggest hits of last year — dealt with the subject of sperm donation, also a relatively sensitive topic in India. Do you like picking subjects that stir a controversy?
ShoojitSircar: I like venturing into less-explored terrain. Films, I believe, should touch audiences. Their only purpose should not be to entertain the masses, but also to have a greater social impact. Subjects like sex or sperm donation, for instance, are still considered a taboo in India. Yet, lack of “eligible donors,” as the comedy highlights, is a modern day problem ailing the nation. I wanted to encourage couples to step out of the four walls of their bedroom and openly discuss such problems.
Were you surprised the film did so well?
Shoojit Sircar: To be honest, I was shocked that the film worked in India. Never could I have imaged that Indian parents would take their kids to watch “Vicky Donor,” a comedy on sperm donation and inter-caste marriages. Just goes to show how Indian audiences have evolved in recent years. They’re finally moving away from the boy-meets-girl narrative.
Tell us more about your upcoming projects.
Shoojit Sircar: I’m keen to make a memoir of Amitabh Bachchan. The idea is still at a nascent stage, but I’ve started documenting a few key moments I’ve spent with the Bollywood legend, mostly from our time together on advertisements and films. It’s my way of paying tribute to the superstar.