Reel politik

'Madras Cafe' shows mainstream Bollywood is still chary of the political film

A film critic colleague and I were having a long discussion on last week's release, Madras Café, which deals with a turbulent period in the recent histories (the last few years of the 1980s, up till the beginning of the '90s) of India and neighbouring Sri Lanka. It was a time when ethnic strife between the Sinhalese and Sri Lankan Tamils was at its peak. The demand for a separate Tamil Eelam caused the near-annihilation of the island nation. India's involvement was a series of, depending on which side of the divide you were, ill-advised or timely steps. And it ended, if ever these things end, in the massacre of innocent civilians and members of the Indian Peace Keeping Force, and the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi.

Madras Café has many blind spots, but it is a rare Bollywood film. It dives into this period and partially succeeds in reconstructing an era that altered the political discourse in both India and Sri Lanka. But it is not, and this is important to note, fashioned as a "political" film. It is more an action thriller, seen through the eyes of a fictional spy.

Why didn't it go the whole hog? My colleague and I didn't ask this crucial question, because we know the answer. Because Bollywood doesn't make political cinema. Because making that kind of cinema needs an environment where political personalities or their self-appointed acolytes are less prickly about being held up to the light and judged, sometimes harshly.

Naming names is hard enough (the Rajiv Gandhi look-alike in the film is called the ex-prime minister, even though we all know whom the film is referring to). Even the slightest hint of critique causes all kinds of trouble for the filmmaker, from offended parties calling for a ban to cinema halls being vandalised.

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