Bollywood Director Shoojit Sircar: 'Indian Audiences Are Rapidly Evolving'

Rising Sun/Viacom18
"Madras Cafe" director Shoojit Sircar

The director's latest film, "Madras Cafe," is set against the backdrop of the Sri Lankan civil war and is drawing protests ahead of its August 23 premiere.

With his roots in theater, Shoojit Sircar first made a mark as a commercials and music video director before venturing into features with 2005's Yahaan (Here). The award-winning film was set against the backdrop of the political turmoil in Kashmir. While still in demand as a director of commercials, Sircar has also forayed into producing via his Rising Sun banner, which last year backed Bengali language drama Aparajita Tumi (You, Undefeated), directed by Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury.

The runaway success of 2012's hit comedy Vicky Donor gave Sircar his first Bollywood breakthrough. While launching new talent -- actor Ayushmann Khurrana and actress Yami Gautam -- the film offered a hilarious take on the issue of sperm donation -- the sort of racy subject seldom seen in a mainstream Hindi film.

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Sircar again works in the offbeat register with his latest film Madras Cafe (opening Aug. 23), which is set against the Sri Lankan civil war that began in the 1980s and waged on for over two decades. Co-produced by Viacom18 Motion Pictures, the film -- starring actor John Abraham -- is already generating buzz, as some groups in South India are protesting its sensitive political theme. Sircar spoke with The Hollywood Reporter to share his views on freedom of speech in India and how audiences are becoming increasingly open to unconventional film fare.

The Hollywood Reporter: Madras Cafe is set against the backdrop of the Sri Lankan civil war. How challenging was it to create a fictional story based on this reality?

Shoojit Sircar: Any fictional story will take things from real events. And for this film it is the backdrop of Sri Lanka, so, obviously, it refers to all those who were part of that time -- from the rebels, to civilians, to the peace force and the governments of Sri Lanka and India. The main lead Vikram (John Abraham, also the film's co-producer) is a fictional character, an Indian intelligence officer who is sent on a covert mission to Sri Lanka. The film is about how he gets entangled and discovers a bigger conspiracy. [Actress] Nargis Fakhri plays Jaya, a foreign war correspondent from London. She goes into the war zone in the jungle to report on the refugees and she also becomes a part of the conspiracy.

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THR: Certain groups in South India are already protesting the film's sensitive subject matter. What do you make of this?

Sircar: I first tell people: please watch the film before arriving at any conclusions. The censorship board has already cleared it. Also, I'd like to add that groups and individuals should not take undue political advantage of this or speculate uncecessarily without seeing the film. I am ready for an open discussion once they see the film. Some people are also demanding an advance screening. Well, that decision is best left to the producers, but we are a democratic country where we have a censorship board that clears films. We really can't be doing advance screenings for all the groups or people who have a problem with the film. Otherwise, what is the point of having freedom of speech?

THR: But there have been cases where, even after censorship clearance, films run into trouble, which disrupts their release.

Sircar: Once the censorship board clears a film, there should not be any other obstacle for a film's theatrical run. If somebody is creating a protest or problem against a film, then it is the responsibility of the state and the government to handle this.

THR: Does the film actually mention the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the militant organization that rebelled against the Sri Lankan government, pushing for a separate state for the Tamil people)?

Sircar: There is a fictional rebel group in the film but we don't call them the LTTE. So that is why I am saying, it is a fictional film and unless you see it you can't pass judgment.

THR: What is your take on the state of freedom of speech in India?

Sircar: I think as the largest democracy in the world, we have self-conscious filmmakers who can handle sensitive themes. I earlier made a film, Yahaan, which was set against the backdrop of Kashmir which is also a sensitive political issue. My previous film Vicky Donor was on another very sensitive subject -- sperm donation -- so we were very careful about how to handle this without offending any sentiments. Everything was unconventional in that film -- from sperm donation, to child adoption, to intercaste marriage and even a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law sharing a drink together. The trailer of Madras Cafe includes the line, which is also the film's theme. It goes: “criticizing national policies does not make you anti-national.”

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THR: How challenging was it for you to take a departure from comedy in Vicky Donor to what looks like an action genre in Madras Cafe?

Sircar: This is not an action-packed film though the trailer is intriguing and it is about a war zone. It does not show out-of-the-box, loud action but it is gritty and realistic. It is a departure from Vicky Donor and quite a challenge and a test -- not because of the action, but because of the sensitivity of the subject, which can be touchy for South Indians and others. I had to be very balanced to make this political spy thriller. So walking a very tight rope was a huge departure for me.

THR: What kind of production challenges did you face?

Sircar: The challenge was to recreate the civil war setting of Sri Lanka. So we shot mostly in [the south Indian states of] Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Of course, the script and handling the real-life politics in the storyline were challenging, as we didn't want to take any side and tried to remain neutral. The film's entire production and visual effects were done in India so it is a totally home-grown product.

THR: The film follows the recent release of another real-life inspired drama, D-Day (based on the hunt for India's most wanted criminal, Dawood Ibrahim). How do you see audiences responding to this trend?

Sircar: It is very difficult to say how audiences will respond, as it is new terrain, ambience and genre -- especially for me. Even the audience will have a new experience. But so far, I have had positive feedback, as there is curiosity and intrigue around the film. This is a gritty hardcore subject and not a family entertainer. It's the kind of film we usually see in Western cinema.

THR: So do you see it reaching a potential audience beyond India and the diaspora?

Sircar: Internationally, there have been these kind of films based on Bosnia, Vietnam, Iraq and so on. Perhaps the subject of Sri Lanka could be new -- especially coming from the Mumbai film industry. So in that sense, it offers a new kind of Indian cinema, [apart from formulaic Bollywood fare].

THR: Madras Cafe is co-produced by Viacom18 Motion Pictures. What do you make of the increasing presence of Hollywood studios producing Indian films?

Sircar: First, the biggest thing is that Indian audiences are rapidly evolving and want to see more than just formulaic fare. Last year, most films that worked had offbeat stories, which was not the case earlier. Even a recent arthouse film like Ship of Theseus has managed to generate audience interest. By tackling unconventional subjects that end up doing well, there is a new business sense dawning on producers and studios, which is very good for us filmmakers. And Viacom18 has been very adventurous in challenging convention.