Madras Cafe's John Abraham, Shoojit Sircar: Men on a mission

Mumbai | Updated: Aug 23 2013, 23:42pm hrs
John abraham"Films are like cricket. People always forget your last performance and they always remember your current release", says John Abraham. (IE Photo by Vasant Prabhu)
After a successful 'Vicky Donor', John Abraham and Shoojit Sircar offer gripping 'Madras Cafe'.

We have been told that films, however mediocre or substandard they are, sell on a single hit song. But we want to present a credible side to Indian cinema, and the intention towards that is honest

John Abraham, actor/producer

Madras Cafe is a complete U-turn from the kind of films I have made in the past Yahaan and Vicky Donor. For me, the latter, too, was a sensitive subject, even if people saw it otherwise

Shoojit Sircar, director

Shoojit, why did you choose the subject of LTTE It is a complex subject and very different from your earlier works.

Shoojit Sircar: Madras Cafe is a complete U-turn from the kind of films I have made in the past Yahaan and Vicky Donor. For me, the latter, too, was a very sensitive subject, even if people saw it otherwise. I guess these subjects attract me and somewhere down the line they also affect me. That is why Ive made a film like Madras Cafe, which is a journey of a soldier named Vikram Singh (played by John Abraham), whos been appointed by the RAW (Research and Analysis Wing) to conduct a covert operation in the backdrop of a civil war. And when he goes there, he gets entangled in this whole political turmoil where there is peace force, the Sri Lankan Army and rebel groups. It is a challenging subject and a test for my own self. Its a new genre of film that I am trying. People have never seen, neither have I ever tried to make a film on a real civil war. We have seen war films in the past, but civil wars are so different. Also we have seen James Bondish kind of films, but we havent seen real action spy thriller, which is what this film deals with it tackles an assassination plot.

Madras Cafe review

John, this year has been good for you with a lot of appreciation for your role in Shootout At Wadala. What are you expecting from Madras Cafe, considering it is a new genre and a risky venture

John Abraham: Films are like cricket. People always forget your last performance and they always remember your current release. Madras Cafe is a completely different film. It was very tough to make something that is very different from a series of hardcore commercial films; to come in the middle of that and present a Madras Cafe is also a daunting task. We dont have a typical lip sync songs to promote the film. We have been told that films, however mediocre or substandard they are, sell on a single hit song. But we want to present a credible side to Indian cinema, and the intention towards that is honest. We are just hoping that people like this new dish we have prepared for them. We are very proud of the film.

In the past interviews you have said that it is similar to Argo. What is the similarity

JA: Let me re-phrase my statement. What I tried to imply was that a film like Madras Cafe isnt made in our country. So there is no benchmark for the film within Indian cinema that I can compare the film to. We havent made a Hollywood film our crew is Indian, our actors are Indian, our sensibilities are Indian; and we have tried to make a commercial Hindi film. It was just to give an idea of the kind of film it is that we said that it is like JFK in terms of conspiracy, Body Of Lies in terms of treatment, Argo in terms of texture and Syriana in another way. We havent made a Hollywood lookalike. The language and the structure is very different. And it is all thanks to Shoojit that he has made an effort to make such a radically different film. With this film, Viacom 18 is planning to have a massive release in non-traditional markets, and they are tying up with foreign distributor to distribute it internationally. They believe that the film is worth presenting as a foreign film anywhere.

Shoojit, in Vicky Donor you have used certain comic dialogues and inferences to simplify the concept of a sperm donor. Have you done something similar to make Madras Cafe more palatable for the audience since the subject is complex

SS: The backdrop of this Tamil conflict is not known to most. A lot of youngsters today werent even born at the time this entire conflict started. What we have tried is to be unbiased. We havent really taken sides be it the army, the rebel fighters or peace force. But in any spy film what happens is that the film starts with a complication. The structure is such that eventually, it starts resolving itself. And when it is unfolding, you start relating with the entire story. There is a voice-over element to the film which connects the entire film together. This story is Vikram Malhotras perspective, so you will find the voice-over element as the connecting element within the film. I have also given a prelude to the film, where you will be aware about the history of certain incidents that takes place and how Vikram gets involved in the conflict.

Tell us a little more about the plot of the film

JA: The tag line of the film, Jo hum dekhte hain, sunte hain, sacch sirf utna nahin hota, pretty clearly states whats happening in the film. Also the other line Intercept the truth, is very important, because with every intercept in the film, we realise that something really big is going to happen. Of course, those familiar with the subject will walk out after the film, wondering if it really happened like this We have taken inspiration from real life characters , but the fact remains that the film is a work of fiction. My character in the film is fictitious. And from what I have gathered my character is based on the experiences of a number of soldiers from the Indian Army. Every Indian must see Madras Cafe to know and understand events that changed the political scenario of our country for ever.

What was the research process for this film like and where was the material gathered from

SS: Whatever is there in the film took six years to sort of come to a level to be made into a film. I kept on changing my draft as the problem was continuing down south till 2009, when the rebel groups were finally defeated. The script was there but the research was mainly books , and articles. Indian Expresss coverage of the war helped me a lot. I also referred to a few government reports, but the difficult part was in fictionalising it. As it is a sensitive issue, you couldnt go wrong. I had to constantly be on a middle path, neither right nor left, and that was a task.

Are there references to any of the leaders of the LTTE

SS: Since its based on a real backdrop, you can find traces of the rebel groups ideology and political nuances, but everything about the characters is fictional.

John, as a producer did you think twice before saying yes to the film or did you just plunge in

JA: As a producer, I like different kind of subjects and they attract me. I met Shoojit for this film only as an actor, but after Vicky Donor we decided to jointly produce it. I am very happy that I have produced the film. As a producer, I would like to do subjects which as an actor I couldnt find producers for. I have done films like Water, Kabul Express and No Smoking and they have all found limited success. As a producer, it is important for me to marry commerce with content.

Shooting a war film, what really goes into the making of it, in terms of budget, sets, special effects, etc

SS: Recreating an authentic civil war like this one, where there were Indians, Sri Lankans and then the rebel group soldiers, was a huge task. The task as a director was to transport the audience to the civil war. If you can take the audience to that zone, then your work as a director is accomplished. When we were shooting this one sequence, of thousands of refugees migrating to India, it was an emotional scene. We tried to imagine and show what the scene would be like. After shooting that sequence, I realised what an Indian solider goes through to protect his country. I salute their spirit. They dont just stand there and fire bullets. This another side of Indian solider that we have explored in the film. And the new thing that we have incorporated is how a real spy works, how they decode, how they catch the intels and codes, their source and links. These are things that we have never seen earlier on screen.

You are playing a spy who is in the midst of a war, what was the mindset required to play the role

JA: There is one scene in the film where my onscreen wife gets pictures of the people I have killed. She asks me, You kill innocent civilians and people for living, and my character says no. This scene really affected me as it required me to look up at her and say, For me, the countrys security is of utmost importance. I had to explain her that the larger picture is more important. I have never felt so Indian. You realise that killing is a bad thing, but when a countrys security is at stake everything else is miniscule. I went through all the emotions that a real Indian solider perhaps would. I completely identified with their feelings.

In films, journalists are generally shown as a nuisance, adding to the chaos around. So how different is Nargiss role from the film

SS: Again her character in the film is very different than other journalists shown in films. She plays a real war correspondent. Marie Catherine Colvin, an award winning American journalist, who died while covering the siege of Homs in Syria, was one of the leading examples. She had earlier lost her eyesight during the Sri Lankan War. Then there is Padma from Bangalore and then there is Anita Pratap. You will find shades of them in Nargiss character. Initially when I went to Nargis with the script, she was little apprehensive about being able to pull off the role of a war correspondent. I provided her with links and other material on war correspondents, which she read and came prepared for the role. We started doing different workshops. Its a tough role and Nargis has played it very well. She has received a lot of criticism for Rockstar and she comes with a baggage. She wasnt confident enough. Thats where the job of the director starts. Madras Cafe will prove to be a re-launch for her.

John, what was the most challenging part of the film

JA: The most challenging part of the film, for me, was the weather. The weather was 45-46 degree. We were shooting in something called a safe house where humidity was at its highest. It was gruelling. But Shoojit is so fast that even his crew wouldnt realise when he ended his shot and started another one.

The other challenge I faced for the film was in marketing a film of this genre. It was difficult to make people understand, that we are presenting something credible and honest. Trust me, it is a challenge. It is so much easier to dance and get your way through.

There was a controversy over the release date of the film as well its release in south

SS: Yes, there was a controversy over the film. We have requested people not to speculate over the content, but we cant control people. We went to the Censor Board, they cleared the film and we are happy with that. People, who have issues, can see the film, come on an open platform and talk.

JA: Post the controversy, we decided to dub the film in Tamil. I went to South India and released the Tamil version in front of the entire press. I also said that all kind of objections are based on speculations. I am very sure after seeing the film, no one will have any issues. Also, if there is a political agenda behind it, then there is nothing much we can do.

You mentioned earlier about releasing the film in unconventional markets. Which are those markets

JA: Malaysia, Poland, Eastern, western Europe and more. We are probably tying up with Fortissimo Films as they distribute films internationally. They have earlier distributed films like Motorcycle Diaries in non-traditional markets. We will release Madras Cafe internationally, two weeks after we release the film in an apologetic Indian diaspora. This is a film which needs new frontiers.

Tell us about the songs and the music in the filmAs a producer, was it difficult for you to work on a film without any popular song in it

SS: There is one song, Sunn le re maula, which is composed by Shantanu Moitra and sung by Pappon, the rest are all background score.

JA: Yes, it is difficult. We can lay our hands on so many mediocre films that have done well only because of that one hit song in it. I am not being condescending. I am a part of that genre of films too, but what I am saying is that it is also important to create honest cinema, for which we have made an honest effort. I am happy doing no-brainers as well, we all enjoy it. But entertainment is not all about song-and-dance, it is about giving you the power to think and debate. After seeing Madras Cafe, one can sit in a coffee-shop and debate that, to me, is complete entertainment.

John, were you asked undergo any specific training for your look in the film

JA: Shoojit was clear that he wanted to completely re-construct me. He called and said we need to start all over again. We dont need the John Abraham of Force or Shootout At Wadala. We didnt need that kind of a body. As RAW agents can be anybody. They mingle in the crowd and for that I had to look normal and regular. I have achieved that.

What was the most difficult part to shoot in the entire film and how did you cope up with it

JA: Actually the most difficult scene of the film for me was the climax of the film. There is backdrop to this feeling. I was very young when I woke one morning and felt a drop of water hit my face. And I saw my mom crying while she was drawing the curtains over my head. I asked her about it, and she said that Rajiv Gandhi had been assassinated the night before. This was May 22, 1991. The next day newspapers and magazines were covered with photographs of Rajiv Gandhi. It impacted me a lot. And since we have drawn a lot from real life incidents for Madras Cafe, it impacted me while shooting it. This impact is also evident in the trailer, where we are trying to save our ex-PM and I wish we could. To relive the trauma all over again was a big thing. I was shaken and surprised by the impact it had on me. The reactions in the film are all real. There is a catharsis in that moment and it is beautiful.

You also roped in the famous quizmaster Siddhartha Basu in the film. What made you cast him

SS: Siddhartha Basu has done theatre in the past. I started my initial television work under him. He was my boss and so it was time to pay back. I have seen him as an actor on stage, and he was good. When I offered him the role, he was apprehensive about taking it on, but I asked him to just try. Also, we wanted some faces which could look credible. People, who make decisions for the country, come from literate background; they are extremely well-read. So, you should get a feeling that this man is talking and we should listen to him. Piyush Pandey, Agnelo Dias also make up the supporting cast of the film. They take the film ahead because of their powerful portrayal. Siddhartha Basu will be a gift to the industry.

You had a interesting mix of cast in Vicky Donor too. How important are character actors in supporting a film

SS: As a director, your 50 per cent of work in done when you find a face that matches the character in your story. If your casting is right you are sorted. In the case of Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, 80 per cent of the job was done when Farhan Akhtar looked exactly like Milkha (Singh). And the rest is your craftsmanship as a director.

No item numbers!

At the end of the Screen Preview session, Shoojit Sircar said that he had an important announcement to make. There is no item number in the film, he announced. But John quickly clarified that their item numbers are helicopters and

choppers in the air, adding our Madras Cafe only serves gun powder.

Diet chart

When a plate of sumptuous cookies topped with nuts was placed in front of the guests, John, time and again, would pick out a nut from the cookie, leaving the rest intact!

Army dress code

In keeping with the theme of Madras Cafe, John Abraham wore cargo pants that resembled combat fatigues with a basic tee and an olive green shirt. The actor mentioned its something he likes to wear everytime. I like wearing fatigues. In fact Nargis (Fakhri) asked me once, Do you ever change your pants I really like this. So whenever I get a chance to wear them, I do, he explained.

Transcribed by Avantika Patil