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MUMBAI (AFP) – Bollywood is foraying into controversial terrain with new spy thriller, "Madras Cafe", whose depiction of rebels in the Sri Lankan civil war has raised concerns among India's large Tamil population.
The movie, which opens in India this month, features John Abraham as an Indian secret agent shortly after peace-keeping troops sent by New Delhi to Sri Lanka were forced to withdraw in 1990 following a three-year battle with separatist Tamil rebels.
Director Shoojit Sircar describes "Madras Cafe", shot in the southwestern Indian state of Kerala, as a "hardcore political film which examines conspiracies, espionage, how information is coded, decoded and passed through".
India has a large and politically active Tamil population in its south and South Indian activists have already raised concerns over the movie's depiction of the rebels in the bloody conflict.
But Sircar insists the movie, set in the early 1990s, "does not take sides.
"The bigger message is that in a civil war, civilians suffer the most," he told AFP.
While the film's main character is fictitious, Sircar said he had "used real references, portrayed rebel groups, revolutionary freedom fighters, Indian Peace Keeping Forces (and) shown how India got involved and the chaos".
The conflict in Sri Lanka, which cost up to 100,000 lives, erupted in 1983 between government forces and the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who were fighting for an independent state for ethnic Tamils. Both sides are accused of human rights atrocities.
In 1987, Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi sent a peace-keeping force in a bid to end the conflict but the intervention failed.
The move was met with criticism at home while straining relationships between the two neighbours, and when Gandhi was assassinated in 1991, the LTTE were the prime suspects.
Sircar remains tight-lipped over whether Gandhi's killing is tackled directly in the movie, saying "how it ends and moves is the surprise of the film".
Although the assassination changed the course of Indian history, few of the country's movies have looked at Gandhi's death, the Tamil Tigers or the Sri Lankan conflict.
Tamil-language drama "Kutrapathrikai" (Chargesheet), based on Gandhi's killing and the civil war, was blocked by the censors for its political overtones and only released 13 years later in 2007 with several cuts.
The acclaimed 1999 Tamil film, "The Terrorist", was inspired by the assassination, while the 2002 drama "Kannathil Muthamittal" (A Peck on the Cheek), directed by Mani Ratnam, focused on a girl searching for her parents amid the Sri Lankan conflict and won various awards.
Often preferring more light-hearted fare, Hindi-language Bollywood films that venture into geopolitics tend to focus on cross-border conflicts with Pakistan and the disputed region of Kashmir.
But Sircar, whose past films include the unconventional 2012 comedy hit "Vicky Donor" about sperm donation, said he wanted to place the spy operation against a different setting.
"I did not want the usual India-Pakistan backdrop," he said. "I had been following this civilian crisis for a long time and integrated it into the main story."
Although the movie has passed India's censor board, the film may still face hurdles in the southern state of Tamil Nadu.
Activist group Naam Tamilar (We Tamils) has asked the state government to stop the film's release, unhappy that the trailer depicted the LTTE as "terrorists", according to Indian media reports.
"We would like to see the film before its release," filmmaker Sebastian Seeman, who heads the group, told Indo-Asian News Service, saying they would let the film pass "if we don't find any scene in the film objectionable".
"Madras Cafe" star Abraham told AFP he plans to attend a press conference in Tamil Nadu to calm any controversy over the movie, saying: "I am sure once they see the film they will be happy.
"It is great cinema and we have taken great care not to hurt anyone's feelings. But the backdrop of the film is true incidents and real life situations which we can't shy away from," he said.
It would not be the first film to be banned in Tamil Nadu.
Another spy thriller, "Vishwaroopam", was forced out of cinemas in January after Muslim groups complained they were portrayed in a negative light, prompting director Kamal Haasan to threaten to go into exile.
The matter, which renewed fears about freedom of artistic expression in India, was resolved when controversial scenes were muted.