His films have made a mark in the heart of Indian filmscape. More so, his last film Vicky Donor that portrayed the sensitive issue of sperm donorship with succinct humour and excellent screen-play. With Madras Café, Shoojit Sircar ventures into a completely different terrain – politics and South India.
A common observation is the similarity in the film title names – Chennai Express and Madras Café?
Rightfully said. The commonality ends there. They are completely different genres, you would know.
Political thrillers and RAW agents have been featured of late in Hindi cinema – how is this different?
RAW agents have been common to Hindi cinema, so have cops. But they are portrayed differently by each film-maker. If you look at recent cinema, political dramas haven’t been there. Madras Café is not an action film. It is in fact a thriller. If we map out the way wars have been portrayed in Hindi cinema, the wars have usually been between India and Pakistan. We have hardly seen hardcore cohort officers from other parts of India. It is new and fresh in that way.
What is not caricaturist about this film?
Madras Café is not a James Bond film. It is not about an agent who will jump off the train and knock down guys. It is not a film where the agent is involved in doing hard core action sequences. Yes, there is action involved in the film that happens in ambushes at war zones. It is set in the times of a gritty civil war situation and army choppers and what happens in real life. Perhaps for the first time in Hindi cinema you get to see the workings of the intelliengence – how they get their sources and links and networks to reach their goals. You usually see these kind of things in western cinema. I have tried and portrayed the efforts of how a real agent works.
Are there instances of comic relief in the film?
This subject is a serious subject. It is about an agent going into a civil war. It talks about a civil war and its problems. It is an edgy affair and cannot lend itself to humour at all.
You chose to do such a gritty film after a Vicky Donor? Why did you choose this genre?
It interested me a lot and I felt deeply about it. My closest friends are Tamilians and I have heard stories from them. I felt close to the subject and feel that people should know about it too. Ayushmann was my AD for a while when we shot the film in Cochin. He is a good friend and it was great to have him around.
How was it getting Sidddharth Basu to act on the big screen?
Siddharth Basu is an old friend of mine. I started out working with his company and I have seen him onstage acting in plays. I was looking for an out-of-the- box face and I think he looks absolutely convincingly in the part he plays. He did quite well.
Did John have to work on his body to get to the role of a soldier for Madras Café?
He had to reduce a lot of weight and in terms of performances, he was used to a certain style given the commercial films he has done. He had to unlearn a lot of things. An agent doesn’t look dramatically different than anyone of us. He had to adopt that kind of an attitude. He lost weight and also got into a new look.
Did John shift into the actors and producer’s role with ease?
To me, first he is an actor and second he is a producer. He turned producer with Vicky Donor and we got together and decided to make more films. The budgets are decided and we give a good amount of space to ourselves till now. I am sure the partnership will do well.
You shot a commercial with Nargis Fakhri much before she signed Rockstar – tell us about why you chose her?
We were looking for a new face who would play the role of an international journalist. We were thinking of a couple of actresses. Initially my choice was model Sheetal Malhar and frankly speaking, Nargis never occurred to me. But one day we were discussing the film and since I happened to meet her (I had already shot a Pond’s commercial with her), I gave her two lines and asked her to come the following day to read them. She kept asking me if I was sure that she was right for the role and I told her we’ll see tomorrow. I gave her a few website links on war correspondents and the next day she did the reading. She had done her homework well. She was very good. I am glad I cast the right person for the role.
What was you research regarding the film?
The war has been going on for 25 years and there are several government reports on it and so many books available that I didn’t have to go looking for material. The research material was extensive and available and that helped in the detailing of the film. At the end of the day, these were human lives we were talking about and any amount of research would only help in telling the story in a better manner. We just referred many books.
How difficult is it to create a balance in the narration of the script in a film such as this?
That is the biggest challenge. There are various perspectives to the war and we had to walk the absolutely thin line. That is why it is an edgy film – we had to walk the right balance between the various perspectives the film has. In that way it was similar to Vicky Donor – the treatment of the subject too was extremely sensitive and one wrong word or gesture would completely change the meaning of the film. Vicky Donor dealt with issues like a divorcee, older women who enjoyed a drink or two, the concepts of prejudice between Punjabis and Bengalis etc. In this film there is a scene where Nargis says that criticizing national policy doesn’t make her anti-national.
Vicky Donor had an amazing sense of detailing – usually associated with your cinema, does it come from background of advertising?
We talk of films from Europe in their style and detailing – I have tried to make the film as real and stylish as well. A lot is to do with not just my ad –film-making background but my theatre background as well. There is a lot of detailing required for both art forms. In a 30 second commercial you have to get your detailing right. I think we all have learnt our sense of detailing from Satyajit Ray films and European films have taught that how a detailing should be done.