Shoojit Sircar’s last film Vicky Donor, about a sperm donor, became the unexpected hit of 2012. It helped Sircar bounce back from the debacle of his unreleased film Shoebite, starring Amitabh Bachchan. Sircar’s forthcoming film, Madras Cafe, with John Abraham and Nargis Fakhri in the lead roles, is a political espionage thriller set in India and Sri Lanka. Edited excerpts from an interview:
You have said that ‘Madras Cafe’ is your most challenging film so far.
I have not touched the political spy thriller genre before. Secondly, I cannot think of any reference point for a film like this in India. I am not considering Ek Tha Tiger, Agent Vinod or Bond. Madras Cafe is set against the backdrop of the civil war in Sri Lanka in the 1990s. It follows Vikram, a special officer from the army appointed by RAW to conduct covert operations in Sri Lanka. Once there, he starts unearthing a bigger plot. The challenge was to be neutral, unbiased. But it is a piece of fiction during the war, which was real and complicated.
Another challenge is to keep the audience interested, especially as many of today’s youngsters are not even aware of the Lankan situation. The film does not take sides. It offers a perspective on how an operative works and how this issue, in this backdrop, begins affecting his life.
What are the most important aspects to keep in mind while making a thriller?
Foremost is the casting; you need convincing faces. Most of our films suffer from casting. Indian bureaucrats are well-read, boarding school graduates or Stephanians who know politics, which is why I cast, say, Siddhartha Basu. The next important aspect is transporting the audience to that milieu. We have created Jaffna in India, but you will feel like you are in the middle of Sri Lanka. Then it’s important to ensure that the dialogues do not sensationalize issues.
What made you cast John Abraham and Nargis Fakhri?
Firstly they are not the hero-heroine in my film. While there have been reservations about John doing certain kinds of films, I thought he would play the part right. It’s instinct. You will see in the trailer that he doesn’t shout. This is new territory for him and he has pitched it quite right. For a foreign war correspondent’s role, I needed a girl who looks Indian but has an accent. She was also sceptical but we did workshops and I think she comes across fine. There is also Rashi Khanna, who plays John’s wife, her debut.
From ‘...Yahaan’ to ‘Vicky Donor’ to ‘Madras Cafe’—do you feel the need to settle into a genre?
A film-maker’s job is to tell a story. I don’t know what genre I will settle into, but I know that I have wanted to tell this subject for a long time. I never thought a film about a sperm donor could work with audiences in India, but it did.
How do you feel about ‘Shoebite’ now?
I was really depressed, sad. I went through a very bad time. Not just I, but all the crew, including Mr Bachchan, had put in all into the film. I felt cheated and dejected and I think it is disrespectful to Mr Bachchan that one day my producers decided to hold back the film because of issues with another studio. This is something they should have thought of before. This is why I hate production houses that do not own the film. It’s sad that they just count money and do not stand up for a film.
What are your future projects?
I have four or five scripts ready to make. The next one is Hamara Bajaj with Ayushmann Khurrana and then I will make another film starring John. I am also writing a couple of films for Mr Bachchan. I am producing a second Bengali film and producing a Hindi film. I won’t sit at home and think about Shoebite.
Madras Cafe releases in theatres on 23 August.