Today in India and around the world a new Bollywood flick, Madras Café, hits theaters. It already has many Tamil activists in an uproar for its allegedly negative portrayal of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and the group’s former leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran.
Set in the 1980s and 1990s, the film clearly seems to take as its themes the civil war that was raging in Sri Lanka during that period and the assassination of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi by Tamil Tigers in 1991 at an election rally in the southern state of Tamil Nadu.
Lead actor John Abraham plays intelligence agent Major Vikram Singh, who is dispatched to Jaffna in the north of Sri Lanka. He becomes embroiled in the island’s politics and uncovers an assassination plot for a “former Indian prime minister.”
Not standard Bollywood fare. The Times of India writes: “If you like typical Hindi movie masala, unrealistic action or melodrama, this movie is not for you.” The film has received rave reviews. The Deccan Herald has called it a “taut, exceptional political thriller,” while Emirates 24/7 has compared it favorably with Argo.
“The film is a work of fiction, but it is based on research into real events, it has a resemblance to actual political events, dealing with civil war and the ideology of a rebel group,” the film’s director Shoojit Sircar told BBC. “The film revolves around important events that changed the political history of India.”
As the BBC goes on to note, it is not only the general historical context and the focus on the Sri Lankan conflict and assassination of Rajiv Gandhi that has displeased many Tamils. Heightening the controversy is the fact that the actors playing the Tamil rebel leader Prabhakaran and Rajiv Gandhi bear a striking resemblance to the real men. Sircar insists that “such resemblances are coincidental.”
That assurance did little to ease the anger of protesters, one of whom has filed a petition with the Madras high court to ban the film. The petitioner in question, a lawyer named B Stalin, insists that the film depicts Tamils as “terrorists.” Seeman, leader of the Tamil group Naam Tamizhar Katchi, added, “We cannot accept this movie in any form. The heart of the film is anti-Tamil.”
Some film exhibitors have expressed fear that showing the film in Tamil Nadu could spark violence, with some telling The Hindu that it was a risk that is “simply not worth taking.”
Despite the controversy, Sircar said the film “does not take any sides.”
Abraham agreed: “I believe it to be a very pro-Tamil film and it was not made to hurt anyone's sentiments. We did not make the film to create a controversy.”
Abraham, who also produced the film, also called for support in Tamil Nadu. In a statement, the actor said: “I would like to urge all of Chennai (Tamil Nadu’s capital) to support Madras Cafe as a film and allow it to release (as scheduled). It is a credible film made with a lot of heart and gives audiences something novel to be entertained about, vouching and encouraging cinema.”