Bollywood blockbuster Madras Cafe withdrawn in UK

Britain should learn the lessons of Satanic Verses and Bezhti and stand up for free expression

28 Aug 2013

I have not seen Madras Café, a political thriller from Bollywood, which tells the story of an Indian intelligence agent on a secret mission during the Sri Lankan civil war. That was an exceptionally cruel war; one only has to see Channel 4’s searing reports or read Frances Harrison’s Still Counting the Dead or Gordon Weiss’s The Cage: The Fight for Sri Lanka and the Last Days of the Tamil Tigers to realise the gravity of that conflict.

Madras Cafe is a Bollywood film, a fictional feature based on real events – in this case, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (Tamil Tigers) role in the assassination of former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, on his comeback trail. (The LTTE assassinated former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991, on his comeback trail, later saying it was “a blunder”.)

I haven’t seen the film because UK cinema chains Cineworld, Odeon and Vue, won’t let me. Apparently in response to protests from the local Tamil community, Cineworld issued an anodyne statement, saying: “Our policy is to show a wide range of films for different audiences. However, following customer feedback and working with the film distributors, we have decided to not show Madras Café. We apologise for any inconvenience.”

Customer feedback? Press reports suggested that some Tamils had complained that the film was anti-Tamil. The Facebook page of the Tamil Youth Organisation UK has been full of agitation against the film, but I was curious about the basis of the chain’s decision, so I asked them what kind of feedback they had received. Was it in writing or a phone call? Had the customers giving such feedback seen the film? (How, considering that the film was being released simultaneously worldwide on 23 August?) I also asked if it was normal practice for Cineworld to see customer feedback before showing each film. I’m not sure if Cineworld had shown any of the following films, so I wanted to know if they had sought prior customer feedback from any of the communities that may have been offended by films like “Borat” (Kazakhs), “LOC Kargil,” “Gadar: A Love Story”, or “Zero Dark Thirty” (Pakistanis), “Bruno” (gay people), “Waltz With Bashir” (Israelis), or the many American films critical of US foreign policy and Vietnam war? If not, why not? A Cineworld official sent me, again, the press release about customer feedback.

True, protests in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu has also led to the film being withdrawn from most cities there. Ransacking and attacking theatres is not unusual in India. But this is Britain. I wanted to know if there had been a violent threat, and if so, did the theatre seek police protection. But we didn’t reach that far.

Have we learned nothing? A quarter century ago, Muslims in Bradford burned copies of Salman Rushdie’s novel, The Satanic Verses because the Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini declared a fatwa on the novelist. At that time, some in Britain didn’t want anything to do with the problem. Outraged by the intellectual acquiescence of some, Hanif Kureishi wrote the fine novel, The Black Album ridiculing the fundamentalists and the fair-weather free speech defenders.

At that time of The Satanic Verses protests, while some bookshops caved in to pressure, as Rushdie has noted later, many brave booksellers insisted on displaying the novel and selling it, reinforcing freedom of expression, and keeping the idea of unfettered imagination alive.

That was then. It is different now.

In 2004, when Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti wrote a play, Behzti (Dishonour) which dealt with rape and abuse in a gurdwara (the Sikh place of worship), the Birmingham Repertory stopped performances because some members of the local Sikh community threatened violence. Later, “Behzti” could have readings in London, and Bhatti even wrote another play in 2010 – “Behud” (Beyond Belief) – which examined the state of censorship and artistic freedom in Britain.

And now? Madras Cafe can’t be shown, and much of the British media has ignored the story, except industry publications. That reflects the underlying paternalism of the media towards the politics within Britain’s minorities. Like female genital mutation, which was initially considered a quaint ritual among immigrants, and forced marriage, which was confused with arranged marriages among Britain’s Asians, intolerance by young hotheads is seen as a cultural characteristic of specific immigrant groups, and being good multicultural people, we should all accept that. Rights – of equality, of expression – are seen as the privileged majority’s heirloom. Since loud individuals within a minority don’t want it, why impose “our” values on them?

But those values are universal, not western. Madras Cafe may be a terrible film – who knows? – but that should be for the viewers and audiences to decide. The aggrieved Tamils have no obligation to see it; indeed, they have the right to picket peacefully outside theatres. They also have the right to tell their story and broaden our understanding of the Sri Lankan conflict, so that the British leaders who go to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meet in Sri Lanka in November know the kind of hosts whose hands they will shake.

The Sri Lankan story is complex, with neither the government nor the LTTE coming out looking good. The many victims of that conflict – Sinhala and Tamil alike – deserve better. Madras Cafe won’t tell that story – that was never its aim. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be shown.

Cinema chains need to rise to the challenge, and screen the film, with police protection, if necessary. Far more is at stake than a Bollywood blockbuster’s box office returns.

13 responses to “Bollywood blockbuster Madras Cafe withdrawn in UK”

  1. tundebeedi says:

    This film is currently available in most Tamil / Keralan food shops in London for £2:00. Possibly copied but quality is definately viewable / audible / reasonable. (Actually it is interesting that the subtitle choice reads like a United Nation’s role call? Somebody ? wants this to be viewed and understood by a wide variety of people)

    So BUY it & see for yourselves, without the Popcorn and mega ticket prices. Many comments posted so far do not resonate with the detail (real or fictional) of the film itself.

    Personally……..the most important ‘revelation’/ lesson from the film for me, was the role of the ‘foreign hand’ – multinational forces looking to the long term value of SL’s geographical position & maritime facilities. These people are just like gunrunners of old – they wouldn’t care less who’s shooting, maiming (raping)whom and in whatever numbers, as long as their long term plans are succesfull. Those still retaining hope for peace between communities in SL, might do well to consider this. “Divide & Rule”….”Just as it ever was”.

  2. Max Pathmanathan says:

    While as a principle i dont agree with banning the movie, the issue here is there are evidence to point sri lankas preseident Mahinda rajapakse ans Sri Lankan govt encouraged making of this movie that is clearly biased

  3. William Watson says:

    Here the film makers made a few mistakes.
    CURRENT issue: As far as the Indians were concerned, Eelamite (ashamed to be called Tamils) feelings mattered when Indra Gandhi was alive, the issue mattered when Rajiv sent the forces (not going deeper into what they did – as you seem to be keen film lovers, see In the Name of Buddha by another Indian film maker) and then for the revenge of Rajiv’s demise. Now it matters because they want to make money and have an enjoyment in portraying Eelamit cause as extremists.
    Its the typical Hindu/South Asian thing toi do- live on the hurt fellow countrymen and of people of similar culture!
    STORY: If the film makers wanted to get a story from India, others would have not minded. There was the Indra Gandhi and various others to pick from the Indian infighting.
    FACTS!!!!: We have to agree that for a long time since Rajiv.G’s U-turn on Eelamites, there has been a difference in what THE TRUTH is for the US and the YOU.
    TAMIL: Without going deeper into the Indian in-fighting, Tamil and others are not exactly respected by the Majority
    -Hindi media and people! This is an outsider’s impression!
    Salil – DEMOCRACY: if you are implying that there should be nothing done if people/customers expressing their unhappiness with film, etc. peacefully and wanting it in South Asian way would not be the best way to go forward.
    CONFUSED: It’s a fictional film based on real events???? This is the end of reality!! May be the British censor board is not as gullible as some expect them to be!

  4. Darren says:

    There appears to have been very little coverage of this issue in UK online Press outlets. I suppose that is hardly surprising, given the woeful lack of space generally given to mainstream Indian films in British film publications and newspaper review sections, but I had hoped that this latest threat to freedom of expression might have made a few waves. The BBC website notes the film’s ‘difficulties’ in India, but, so far as I can see, says nothing of the withdrawal from cinemas in this country.

    I got in touch with the three main cinema chains, via social media sites, to protest their decision to pull ‘Madras Cafe’, but only one replied. The response may look familiar. I reproduce the correspondence below:

    Me – It cannot be right that a film (‘Madras Cafe’) is withdrawn from your cinemas in the UK due to the raised voices of people who have not even seen it. Please play it, allow us to make up our own minds about it, and let informed debate flow from there. This action sets a dangerous precedent.

    Cineworld Cinemas Hi Darren – Our policy is to show a wide range of films for different audiences. However, following customer feedback and working with the film distributors, we decided to not show Madras Café. We apologise for any inconvenience.

    Me – Hi Cineworld – That is the same line you have given out to everyone else who has questioned your decision. Just exactly what ‘feedback’ did you receive that would make you withdraw a highly-anticipated film, produced by, and starring, one of India’s most popular stars? Were you threatened with violence?
    I really think that this is an unwanted precedent. Where do we draw the line? I hear that Ben Affleck is not everyone’s choice to play Batman, but would you refuse to show the film if a couple of dozen opinionated people showed up at your offices with banners? No, of course not; that would be silly. I understand that certain people are upset by the idea of ‘Madras Cafe’ (they haven’t seen it to be offended by its content), and that’s fine and their right, but please let us see the picture, so that we can make our own decisions, and have a constructive debate. Please do not allow freedom of cinematic expression (and your ability to trade freely) to be eroded by a few raised voices.

    I have not heard anything further. I wonder if the cinemas would have caved so easily if they hadn’t had the ‘Chennai Express’ juggernaut to fill the gap where ‘Madras Cafe’ should have been? Indeed, is it not odd that ‘Chennai Express’ was shown so extensively, given that there have also been objections to its portrayal of Tamil culture from some quarters?

  5. tamilan says:

    Being a Tamil from Sri Lanka i am not able to digest anything.

    when this guy “Shoojit Sircar” makes A movie without knowing anything that
    really happened in srilanka…how much problems we tamils faced due to Indian army…
    its my duty to point out why this movie should be banned…

    1.It was the Indian army(so called peace keeping force) & Sri Lankan
    army that carried out all the rapes,killings of Tamil innocent
    civilians in the first place which all the south Indian Tamil and
    Indian people know…..and apparently the director didn’t want to show
    or even mention about this in the movie.

    2.the director had a meeting with the president of Sri Lanka before the
    pre-production of the you guys can figure out where this

    3.the Indian government/congress party leader Sonia ghandi was
    responsible for the killings of 400,000 Tamil people during the war in
    2009/Indian government could have stopped the sl government from using
    cluster bombs which they didn’t do.sonia’s revenge for killing her
    husband who apparently ordered Indian army to go sri Lanka(to rape/kill
    Tamil people).

    4.when u make movie based on true story its your core responsibility to
    make sure you tell the whole story..but here its like the director
    wants to create a bad image about LTTE,the so called guerilla
    force/militants ran a Separate government(Schools,hospital,police
    force..etc)during the period they controlled Jaffna.

    Director needs to be slapped in the face for this…..

    there is a reason for the protest……..they are just trying to make the indian intelligence/government look like hero which in reality is not….those bastards r the real reason for the deaths of so many tamil people

    we don’t want to allow a movie that is full of lies….because not all the people are going to do a deep research on the story….

  6. Soups says:

    There’s no question the Tamils oppose it because it’s not in line with the LTTE’s agenda in UK. It’s pathetic that these people are happy to “donate” LTTE their blood money, but they don’t have balls to stand up for freedom of speech (which is a fundamental value of their adopted country). Shows how much they have integrated.. May be they don’t have to worry about integration.. as Red Ken gave LTTE a free hand in extortion in London..

  7. Salil Tripathi says:

    And to Tamilian’s point:

    It is a film, not a historical rendering of what happened. And it may be anti-LTTE, but it is not against Tamils. Indian film-makers are not so stupid as to make a film that gratuitously criticise speakers of a major Indian language.

  8. tamilian says:


    This is not the real story and the movie is taken with some intension against LTTE. hiding so many truths at the time of the Blast in sriprembadur which killed Eajeev Gandhi he is not the PM of the country but film shows he is the PM.

    And still beacuse of Srilanka not only the Lankan Tmails even the Tamil fisher mans are affected.. People will really understand only when the srilankan shows their real character to india already they have started allowing Pakisthan and chinese in the indian borders…

    No Worries soon the srilankan will act/turn against india then what this director is going to do, did he seen the clipings of the affected people in war shown by various channels?

  9. FilmViewer says:

    On the points above, Cineworld and Vue has mass protests outside their London offices which is why this was pulled. Who would pay for the police protection? The cinema chains? Why should they?

    Guests visiting a cinema should be able to do so in peace and comfort without any fears or violence or repocussions or having to cross protests outside. This is why the film was pulled

    • Salil Tripathi says:

      To FilmViewer’s question:

      The right to protest peacefully is enshrined in UK’s laws. If there were mass protests outside theatres, that’s fine. I’ve seen mass protests outside theatres during the screening of Hail Mary in New York, and other films elsewhere. That’s democratic. Threats of violence aren’t. We don’t know, because the theatres won’t tell, if they withdrew the film because of violent threat, or the protests, or the petition.

      Who should pay for the police protection? All of us. That’s the “cost” of freedom. The theatre is the victim here, and the victim should not have to bear cost of attacks on them. So the cinema chains should not have to bear the cost. If your concern is tax-payers’ money – it is wasted on a lot of other undesirable purposes; defending art galleries, museums, cinema halls, and bookstores, means defending fundamental freedoms.

      The problem is not the audience nor the cinema, but those who threaten; and those should be dealt with under the law.


  10. Sanjeev Gupta says:

    Bravo, Salil.

    In particular, as you point out, the veracity, or artistic merit, of the movie is not in question, one way or another.

    But in this case, suppose Cineworld decides it does not want to show the movie anyway. Maybe they have shareholders who have opinions on the war. Maybe they are scared. Maybe they just don’t want to be involved, and had rather show a Carry On revival. Surely I (and you) cannot ask them to have the courage of my convictions.

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