Madras Cafe is a hard-hitting spy espionage film: Shoojit Sircar
[dropcap]“I[/dropcap]t took us almost six years to complete the script of Madras Cafe”, tells director Shoojit Sircar while talking about the making of his latest spy thriller film. This versatile filmmaker who earlier gave us a light-hearted film like Vicky Donor, comes up with a politically sensitive subject this time. Pandolin presents an exclusive interview with Shoojit, where he speaks about his equation with John Abraham, the story of Madras Cafe, recreating civil war sequences and why it took so long to finish its script.
I was going through lots of articles, newspapers and reports about the civil war in Sri Lanka. At the same time, I wanted to do a spy espionage film just like what we see in the west. So, I thought why couldn’t we make a very realistic, hard and bold spy espionage conspiracy film in India itself. Then this idea came and we created the character of Vikram, which is being played by John in the film. He is the protagonist who gets appointed from the Armed Special Forces and is sent to Sri Lanka for some covered operation. Soon, he starts getting entangled in that mess and comes across a much bigger conspiracy which is threatening the country. Now, how he starts following up and chases the conspiracy is what this film is all about.
It took us almost six years to complete the script of Madras Cafe because we were not very happy with the way the things were flowing. Also, this kind of film takes time to get matured enough to be presented. Most of the research that we did for the film was available on the Internet. Besides, there are lots of books and government reports, which became part of our research. Also after college, I have been following up quite a bit on the politics in the southern part and the happenings in the civil war. So, that research came quite handy for us.
Your first film Yahan dealt with the subject of terrorism in Kashmir and now Madras Cafe also focuses on controversial Sri Lankan civil war. What according to you are the things a filmmaker must consider while handling such political and sensitive topics?
Obviously, these are very sensitive and touchy issues for many people, especially for those who have suffered and gone through this trauma. Hence you have to be very conscious about what you are presenting and make sure that you are not taking any sides. As a democratic country you have to know that you are an integral part of the Indian society and thus have to take care about the sensitivity of other people. Since your film talks about some kind of a realistic situation, you must double check that you are on the right path which doesn’t hurt anybody’s sentiments. I have taken very special care in terms of handling these issues and this is the reason why Madras Cafe took so long. This film is not to create any shock value but it definitely stirs you up and makes you think.
Considering it’s a spy thriller, what strategy did you adopt for making it riveting for the audiences?
The first half of the film is completely in jungles and the Jaffna civil war while the second part of the film is completely in Madras Cafe where the conspiracy gets hatched. So, in the first part, lots of events unfold amidst lots of complications but then you start seeing what exactly happened and how it impacted two years later. So the way the story unfolds makes it an engaging film.
In terms of look and feel, the primary task for us was to create an environment where I could show a civil war with the real ambience. Since this kind of a film will work only when the audience can feel the impact of what my protagonist is going through, my major concern was to make it look as realistic as it can be. We knew that we couldn’t shoot in Sri Lanka, so we had to recreate everything of the civil war in south only. Also we wanted a racy pace for the film, hence we adopted a shooting style so realistic that you don’t even feel how the film is moving. Everything is a panic in the film and that’s how the camera work has been done. For example, there are too many codes in the film and though we don’t know what they are actually intercepting yet we get an idea about that coding-decoding. The cinematographer Kamaljeet Negi did a brilliant job keeping this brief in mind.
Which camera format and lenses did you shoot on and what was the reason behind that selection?
We engaged three different cameras i.e. Arri Alexa, RED and Canon 7D for shooting this film. We primarily used Ultra Prime lenses coupled with two zooms of 40 to 70 mm. I had to shoot a lot in this film and before this I didn’t know how the digital format worked. So, I did lots of test shoot and while mixing these formats, I got some peculiar results that actually worked for my film.
Where did the shooting happen and how did you recreate portions of Sri Lanka in India? Were there any challenges faced while finding appropriate locations for this film?
Most of the shooting happened in Kerala and Chennai and a few portions were shot in Delhi, Bangkok, Singapore and US. One section of the film was shot in Ramoji Film City as well. We did lots of visual effects too but our production designer and art director created real armed patrolling vehicles for the fights in jungles. You will see some real shots of gunfights happening there. So we mixed everything to create the whole ambience of civil war. Though it was a huge challenge to recreate Sri Lanka and Jaffna yet the good thing was that the terrain is somewhere similar in the coastal towns of southern India. But we had to be very specific and selective and did lots of scouting before we locked in the final locations.
We wanted it to be very authentic and real. We wanted to transport the audience to that zone where they could feel the gunshots, the refugees passing by and the danger lurking around. Hence, we were very careful in selecting everything in terms of that particular war zone. Manohar is the action director of this film but sometimes I helped him quite a bit because I do my action myself. I didn’t want it to look film-like and it had to be very gritty, dark and dingy. So, to create that catastrophic war environment was a pretty challenging part.
What role does music play and how does it take the narrative forward? How many songs are there in Madras Cafe and what was your treatment for them?
There are total three songs in the album but in the film there is only one song i.e. Maula sun le re. The whole film is running purely on the background score, as there is no scope for songs in the story. But background score actually takes the film quite forward and plays a very significant part in the narrative. Shantanu Moitra has composed the music and it entails that energy and thrill, which was exactly needed for this kind of film.
What equation do you share with John Abraham who is not only playing the protagonist but is also the co-producer of this film?
Before Vicky Donor, John and I had an actor-director relationship but now he has become more of a friend. Initially, I didn’t know that John was really aware of this civil war and the history behind those events, so it actually made me happy that my actor is aware of the subject and is ready to take the plunge. Lots of people ask me why I caste John for this film and I always tell them that John will not disappoint you because he has done every bit possible to make himself be normal and real in this film. I saw that hunger in him to produce such films which are completely content based. And you always need a producer who backs you with this kind of subject. He doesn’t interfere with the creativity at all. Yes, we discuss and talk but most of the things as a producer, for example, keeping the crew happy, handling the money part and the film marketing is taken care of by him. So, that’s how we have divided our departments.
A lot of casting happened from the south, especially the faces from Jaffna are absolutely new for everybody. It’s a totally unconventional casting with actors like Siddharth Basu, Piyush Pandey, Agnello, Ajay Rathnam and a new girl named Rashi Khanna, portraying really authentic characters in the film. I wanted my actors to be absolutely normal and subtle and didn’t want them to be shouting out of the screen. I was very particular about my characters’ performances and told them not to go overboard and kept them down in terms of believability. We did workshops with Nargis and John and lots of reading with other characters as they were required to learn new languages like a bit of Tamil. We showed them various real war films and international documentaries, so that they could understand the subject and politics behind it. I told them to read as much as possible about the history of the Sri Lankan civil war to get familiar with it.
What were the major challenges experienced during making this film and how did you cope with them?
The film ties up around three years of the life of the protagonist. So, putting these years into two hours and narrating the whole story from Vikram’s point of view made it extremely challenging. Also, spy films are complex films but how to de-clutter this complexity and make an engaging film was the major challenge for me. Apart from this, creating that civil war zone was also quite important for the film.
What advice would you like to give aspiring filmmakers?
Nowadays there are so many platforms available but when I was growing up, I never got any of these platforms to learn. For example, I have supervised one platform where absolutely young debutant filmmakers shot and directed the National Anthem video that is now being played in Cinemax. So, I would say, just be with your subject and cater to the audience, as they will never know what you are thinking unless you start catering to them with new thoughts and subjects. Also, make it believable because as long as you love the subject, the audience will love it.