Shoojit Sircar is raring to go with his next release, Madras Café. The talented director speaks to Soumita Sengupta about why he is drawn to unusual subjects and the pressure of living up to expectations
You had the script of Madras Café ready even before you started Vicky Donor. What took you so long to make the film?
It always takes time to make a political thriller because you have to be very balanced in terms of what you’re showing and what your character is going through. A script like this requires maturity. That’s why it took some time before I arrived at a draft that I was satisfied with. It took me and my writers four years to work on this script. My writers Somnath Dey and Shubhendru Bhattacharya, my team and researchers are my pillars. Juhi Chaturvedi has written the dialogue. It is hard-hitting and very different from the dialogue of Vicky Donor.
This film includes elements of the Indian political scenario and some real incidents too. What kind of research went into the script?
Most of the information was available in books, the Internet and some Government reports. I have been following this for many years. We have been reading articles in newspapers but there’s nothing like a book to give you the real details.
Why did you change the title of your film from Jaffna to Madras Cafe? Is it because there was controversy over portraying the LTTE?
There has been a lot of talk revolving around the title. Madras Café was part of the plot and while working on the script, we realised we could make it an interesting part of the overall plot. That’s how the name came up. Yes, Jaffna was the tentative title. But we changed the name, not because we were under any pressure but because we needed a more edgy title. We needed something that could arouse curiosity. Hence the name Madras Café.
It’s been very good. Everyone seems to like the trailer and I am convinced it will create the right buzz. The promotions have just begun and the trailer hints at the tone of the film and what the audience can expect. The story is set in Sri Lanka with civil war as the backdrop. At the centre of the plot is an army officer appointed by RAW who is working in that area. There is an element of intrigue which we wanted to play on in the first trailer.
You made Yahaan, which had a military backdrop and a political story. Now you have Madras Café. Are you drawn to politics and the armed forces?
Yes, Yahaan was a love story but the film made a political statement. It was about Kashmiri youth, what they feel about India, what they feel about their land, what the army feels about them, and what Indians feel about Kashmiris. It brought all these elements together.
But Madras Café is much more cut-and-dried, much more hardcore in terms of the operations, the politics or whatever John Abraham’s character Vikram does in the film. I honestly have no idea how the audience will react and it is therefore a test for me. The audience is evolving and beginning to accept new genres, so it will probably work. Human stories never fail to excite me and if the story is about the politics of two countries, about spies and intelligence agencies, I am interested as it presents a challenge.
We have all grown up watching foreign films and wonder why we can’t make films like theirs. We assume the audience will not understand the subject. I wonder why we insult our audience’s intelligence with these assumptions. Start catering to them and they will watch these films. That’s why I believe this is a huge test for me.
You must have included some real-life incidents in the film. Have you included the incident with Rajeev Gandhi?
Yes, the film is a fictional story. It’s based on the rebel group, the politics of that time and we will touch upon the subject of the then prime minister. But you have to see the film how we have portrayed this.
This script had been with me for a very long time and I had approached John back then. But we started working on Vicky Donor instead. John suited the character; he is one of the fittest actors we have. He came to mind when I began to visualise his character. He is simply a character in the film, not the hero. Even Nargis Fakhri is just a character. Everyone simply plays a part. The hero is the thrill, the script and the subject.
And the rest of the cast?
The character demanded an international war correspondent. Nargis was the best choice as she has the accent. I cast Siddharth Basu since he is a theatre artiste. He will be a gift to the industry.
It was very challenging! Thankfully, people have reacted very positively. I am also happy I created the ambience the way I wanted to and it looks exactly that way on celluloid.
Which was the toughest scene to shoot?
The toughest scene was the migration of the refugees. The realistic mindset was very emotional. It was very difficult to capture those scenes. But you feel you’re really in a war zone. It is emotionally disturbing. We had to go through tough moments in the war sequences, which turned out very realistic. The first part of the film is set in the civil war and the second part in India. The film is thus divided into two parts – the first part is in Jaffna, the jungle and the civil war; and the second has Delhi, politics and conspiracy.
Was any Hollywood film the inspiration for your subject?
Yes, you are inspired by the films they make. They have mastered the technique but finally, it’s all about your subject. My film is not a copy of a spy film. My backdrop is civil war, which is absolutely new.
You are still receiving awards for last year’s Vicky Donor and everyone is still talking about the film. Now, you’re ready with your next film only a year later. Is there a lot of pressure on you to deliver something unusual like you did with Vicky Donor?
For every director, every film is like a newborn baby. Yes, people have certain expectations from me. Everyone has asked me why I chose a totally different concept. And if you’re disappointed with this one, I will come back with another good script. I don’t allow pressure to get to me. Everyone will not necessarily like every film you make.
The gap was not due to Yahaan. I was very happy with the way Yahaan performed at the box office. Disappointment came with Shoebite. I wondered how a producer could disrespect the creative and technical teams, Mr Bachchan and me and everybody else involved. How could two years of blood, sweat and hard work be questioned by one single e-mail, which brought everything to a halt just when the film was ready? I am really angry with the producer, UTV Motion Pictures for not doing anything about it. That’s what disappointed me. But these things don’t bother me any more. If the audience is disappointed with this film, I will come back again with another film. There is no stopping me now.
I am not worried about getting big stars. If I cannot sign a reputed actor, I will work with newcomers, which is what I did with Vicky Donor. My job is to make a film; I am not waiting for anyone.