Like Kamal Haasan’s Viswaroopam, Shoojit Sircar’s Madras Cafe belongs to the do-not-ban-it-but-feel-free-to-pan-it category.

Threats of violence by Tamil nationalist groups have managed to create trouble for the Tamil Nadu release of Sircar’s movie, about events leading up to the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991, just like Muslim groups created obstacles for Viswaroopam in January. For a moment, let’s forget the testy Tamilians, who perhaps don’t want to be reminded of the links between local groups and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) terrorists who planned the assassination. What will our neighbour make of this political thriller, which fictionalizes the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) operations in Sri Lanka before returning to India to chase a conspiracy to kill a politician who closely resembles Gandhi?

The fanciful screenplay, by Somnath Dey and Shubhendu Bhattacharya, glosses over the role played by the Lankans in inviting India to “keep peace" in the north of the island, and instead sets up a two-sided bout between the LTTE (Liberation of Tamils Front in the movie) and Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) operatives. One possibility is that somebody didn’t want to upset any more parties than are already upset by the creativity on display. Another is that Sircar has his hands full trying to distil the lengthy and complex history of the Tamil pro-independence struggle, in which the LTTE is a crucial but not the solo player, and doesn’t want to deal with the tricky issue of the conduct of Sri Lanka during the civil war, which ended on a deeply controversial note in 2009.

There is, in fact, so much going on in this movie even without the Lankans that it’s befuddling that Sircar didn’t opt for the less complicated story of the conspiracy to kill Gandhi and the Special Investigation Team’s nimble efforts to crack the case. The convoluted plot is about military intelligence officer Vikram Singh (John Abraham) who is sent to Sri Lanka to prop up a Tamil politician against the Liberation of Tamils Front (LTF) in an election seen as crucial to the peace process. Vikram crosses tracks and swords with the regional RAW head (Prakash Belawadi), while LTF supremo Anna Bhaskaran (Ajay Ratnam) plots away to assassinate the former Indian prime minister who is seen as responsible for supporting the LTF’s opponents.

Madras Cafe hints at a conspiracy within the conspiracy, but it’s never really clear what exactly is the untold truth being revealed. The nationalities of the Caucasian men with whom LTF cadres are consorting? The extent of corruption within RAW? The notorious inefficiency of the Indian state?

Madras Cafe has its sights set higher. Inspired by Steven Spielberg’s Munich, the movie tries to suggest that the government’s policy short-sightedness blinds them to a far greater tragedy ahead (the 11 September 2001 attacks in the case of Munich), but Sircar doesn’t make this point outright. Instead, you get a jumble of jittery action, cross-cutting between various locales, insistent background music, and a phalanx of characters, which includes amateur actors like television producer Siddhartha Basu (playing the RAW chief), advertising man Piyush Pandey (cabinet secretary) and television journalist Dibang (mysterious contact).

The movie settles down, and improves, when the assassination plot gets underway. There is intercept-decoding and clock-watching as Vikram, teaming up with journalist Nargis Fakhri (the movie’s best performance), finally gets cracking. The big reveal is a downer, but in the movie’s closing moments, Sircar finally achieves the emotional impact he has been striving towards from the opening credits.

Madras Cafe released in theatres on Friday.

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