The spy thriller Madras Café, out in the UAE on Thursday, took seven years to produce because of the sensitive nature of the subject – the film is based on the brutal Sri Lankan Civil War. Shoojit Sircar, the director, and the actor John Abraham discuss what went into the making of the film
Already a respected commercial and music video director in India, Shoojit Sircar shot to international fame last year with his directorial venture Vicky Donor. The quirky film, which tackled the topic of sperm donation, won the hearts of audiences all over the world, many of them hearing of the director’s name for the first time.
Vicky Donor was his ticket to fame – and now Sircar returns with Madras Café, a film based on political and civil unrest. The spy thriller, about the Sri Lankan Civil War, stars John Abraham, who is also a co-producer, and Nargis Fakhri.
Vicky Donor was such a light-hearted film, sandwiched between two serious films: your debut venture Yahaan  and now Madras Café. Why the jump between genres?
Vicky Donor was a serious film in its own right. The subjects we dealt with – infertility and sperm donation – are very serious. We did it in a relatively lighthearted way but it was by no means a comedy. Madras Café is something both John [Abraham] and I have been wanting to do for a long time but Vicky Donor just happened first. To do Madras Café together was always the plan.
Madras Café is based on a sensitive political subject. What kind of research went into it?
The story is not old – it’s set in the late 1980s and early 1990s. But a lot of research has gone into it. It is a sensitive subject and I wanted to make sure I did justice to it. It took seven years to map out.
Did it help that you had already worked on a film based on a similar theme?
There are similarities in the theme but they are very different films. As a filmmaker, you have to take this very seriously. You are treading a very fine line when you are dealing with such a subject. I had to portray everything without an ounce of bias. That’s why it took so long. I did not give in to any pressure. I took no liberties.
The actress Nargis Fakhri plays a war correspondent in the film. Were you tempted to glamourise her character? How did you stay true in your depiction of a female war correspondent, and how did you ensure Fakhri would do justice to the role?
It is definitely not a glamourised depiction. In fact, I am sure you will be surprised when you see the film and see how well we have managed to translate the character on screen. As with every other aspect of this film, a lot of research went into the nuances of the character Fakhri plays and how she plays it. She also read up a lot on the lives of war correspondents.
The film is based in Jaffna in Sri Lanka – the initial plan was to shoot some scenes there but it did not happen. Why?
We would have loved to have shot parts of the film in Jaffna, where most of the story is based, but we couldn’t shoot in Sri Lanka for many reasons. We ended up filming those scenes in [the southern Indian states of] Tamil Nadu and Kerala. It was very challenging but the production design and cinematography have come out really well. My vision was to create the feeling of vulnerability and danger, to transport the audience to a war zone. We managed to do that quite well without having to go to Jaffna.
John Abraham drops hunk image for role in Madras Café
After a successful stint as a producer alongside the director Shoojit Sircar in last year’s Vicky Donor, John Abraham is gearing up for round two with Madras Café.
Unlike Vicky Donor, though, where Abraham appeared on screen briefly as the credits rolled, Madras Café features the 40-year-old actor in the lead role.
“In Madras Café, I play Major Vikram Singh, a military officer who has been sent to Jaffna undercover for a top-secret operation,” Abraham said in an interview.
Undercover with all that brawn? After all, his six-pack has always been his unique selling point.
But not in this film. In fact, Abraham says he had to alter his body language for the role.
“We’ve paid a lot of attention to keeping the characters authentic in every way. As an undercover officer, my character had to be someone who could blend in with the crowd. So we had to work on my entire body shape,” said the actor.
“I worked hard and I got it right. Shoojit and I are on the same page when it comes to authenticity and credibility, and we didn’t want to compromise.”
There has been a lot of buzz around the film, and not all of it entirely positive – various parties have objected to the political content.
Following the success of his last two films – Race 2 and Shoot-out at Wadala – is Abraham optimistic about Madras Café’s chances at the box office?
“My main prerogative is to make an honest film. I believe Shoojit and I have done that with Madras Café. That will not change, whether it makes 20 crores [200 million rupees; Dh12m] or 100 crores.”
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